TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. – Family members of victims in a fatal mining accident became enraged and lunged at a coal company official early Wednesday after being told that only one of 13 miners had survived a mine explosion, witnesses said.
The scene unfolded inside the Sago Baptist Church, three hours after the family members had been told that 12 of the miners had survived. For two days, the church had been the place where family members waited anxiously for news.
Nick Helms, son of victim Terry Helms, said several family members had to wrestle one distraught man to the ground inside the church to keep him from hurting the coal company officials who were the bearers of the news.
"I immediately took my girlfriend, my sister and everyone else out" of the church, Helms said. "They were trying to get them. They were doing everything they could to get these guys."
The tragic announcement marked the end of a 41-hour wait after the explosion at the Sago Mine early Monday trapped 13 miners. Virtually everyone in the tight-knit Upshur County community was related to, or friends with, one or more of the trapped miners.
Wives, sons, daughters and friends of miners comforted one another and turned to God for help as time ticked by without any sign of life down below.
Between briefings by coal company officials, they sang religious songs. Some sat inside, while others waited outside on lawn chairs, wrapped in blankets.
The prospects of saving the miners dimmed as the hours went by.
At about 8 p.m. Tuesday, coal company officials announced that one miner's body had been found near the area where the explosion occurred. However, there was hope for the remaining 12 miners because their track-mounted car was found undamaged deeper in the mine.
Then, a seeming miracle: Shortly before midnight, word rushed up the hollow that 12 miners had been found alive.
Family and friends clapped in the early morning chill as a single ambulance drove away, presumably with one of the miners safely in the back.
"It just shows you enough prayers went out," Bula Smith, 27, said as she clutched her 7-month-old daughter, Cassey, close to her. "It's a miracle."
The crowd gathered outside the church burst into a chorus of "How Great Thou Art" as family and friends threw themselves into each other's arms.
Their euphoria was short-lived.
When the townspeople learned that all but one of the miners were dead, they reacted with anger at International Coal and the news media for the miscommunication.
Then, most left quietly. After 41 hours of sharing hopes and prayers and rejoicing, they chose solitude for their grief.