Jim Bennett was about to retire after decades in the mines; Randal McCloy was just getting started. Fred Ware was the son and grandson of miners; Terry Helms didn’t want to be the father of one.
For some of the men on the first shift at the Sago Mine, digging coal was a job they loved. For David Lewis, it was the best way he could help finance his wife’s master’s degree and still see his kids at night.
They commuted from just across the hollow to a couple of counties over for some of the best-paying jobs in these hills.
But no matter where they came from or why they chose to make their living two miles inside a mountain, when the men were underground, it was like family.
“I think if one of us needed anything, the other one would help him if he could,” said Denver Anderson, who narrowly escaped the explosion this week that killed 12 men and left McCloy clinging to life.
Kept work details to themselves
The personal dynamics of the crew are hard to fathom because most miners keep the details of their hazardous work from their families. But from some accounts, it appears Bennett was the crew’s spiritual leader.
As the rescue was still unfolding, Bennett’s older brother, Donald Marsh, imagined Jim was “keeping all of them on their knees.”
Relatives said Bennett had planned on retiring this year.
People who work in the mines say it helps to have a good relationship with God. One of those killed in the disaster, Marshall Winans, 50, had worked at the Sago Mine for six years but had been a minister for 20, said his sister-in-law, Lisa Ferris.
Another of the victims, Alva Martin Bennett, 51, of Buckhannon, followed his father into the mines. And his only son, Russell, followed him, working on the shift after his dad’s. “Russell goes in when Marty comes out,” said Bennett’s aunt, Thelma Detrick.
But not all the men were eager to keep the mining tradition going.
Nick Helms said his father, Terry, “worked 12-hour days and would come home dog-tired,” but wanted better for his son. He encouraged his son to move to South Carolina six months ago to pursue his dream of becoming a professional golfer.
“I tried to get him to go to Myrtle Beach with me,” Nick said, “to get him out of the mine.”
Terry Helms, who at 50 was planning to give matrimony another try, was the shift’s “fire boss.” He got off the mine tram to check conditions and was killed in the initial blast.
Ware had been in the mines 41 years, starting at age 18 in coal seams so thin “he had to crawl on his knees,” said his ex-wife, Brenda Newcomer.
A passion for the job
Ware, who lived in a little white house with a coal-burning furnace just across the river from the mine portal, just loved the cool and damp of the earth’s bowels, said his daughter, Peggy Cohen.
“He wouldn’t have done anything else,” she said Thursday as she cradled in her hand one of the brass identification tags her father would hang on a company board to show he was underground. “He just said he’d never retire. He said, ‘I’ll probably die in the mines.”’
George “Junior” Hamner, 54, of Gladyfork, had to quit the mines when his weight got out of control and dedicated himself to his small cattle farm. But after having stomach surgery and dropping about 200 pounds, friends say, he was back underground to help fill a demand for seasoned miners created by the recent industry boom caused by high oil and natural gas prices.
‘Good way to make a living’
Lewis, 28, had started working in the mines just 2½ years ago. He had worked in the timber industry and construction, but those jobs kept him away from his wife, Samantha, and his three young daughters too long.
“This was a good way to make a living until we could find something different,” Samantha Lewis said. “It’s just a way of life. Unless you’re a coal miner or you have a college degree, you don’t make any money.”
McCloy, too, was relatively new to the mines. But after just three years, “he was looking to get out,” said his wife, Anna, with whom he has two children, ages 1 and 4.
Randal McCloy Sr. said Thursday that his son was planning to go into engineering. “He knew he had to be careful, and he knew it was unsafe,” he said of the mines. “But it was a job. He went into it knowing the dangers.”
At 26, Randal Jr. was the youngest man in the mine when it exploded. His father has no way of knowing it, but said he believes in his heart that his son’s older colleagues shared their dwindling oxygen supplies to help him get home to his two young ones.
“I just believe that’s what happened,” he said as his son lay in a coma. “Those men were like brothers. They took care of each other.”