BUCKHANNON, W.Va. – The 12 miners who died together beneath the West Virginia hills were remembered Sunday as men who loved their families, God, NASCAR, and a good laugh.
"I'm sure there was a prayer meeting goin' on in that ol' coal mine the other evening like we've never seen before," Pastor Wease Day told more than 1,800 people gathered at the memorial service at the West Virginia Wesleyan College chapel.
"I can hear Jim Bennett hollerin' 'Boys you need the Lord in your life.' And I can hear (George) Junior Hamner say 'Does anybody got any cards? Let's play a round.' I can hear them now," said Day, whose Sago Baptist Church became the center for families and others who gathered to await word of their loved ones after an explosion in the Sago Mine.
Bennett, 61, and Hamner, 54, were among the 12 miners who died after a Jan. 2 explosion as they reopened the mine following a holiday break. Investigators have yet to re-enter the mine to determine what went wrong. The blast killed one miner immediately and spread carbon monoxide that slowly killed the 11 others as they waited 260 feet below ground for rescue.
The only survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., 26, remained in a coma Sunday at West Virginia University's Ruby Memorial Hospital.
McCloy's wife, Anna, attended the memorial service and was the first of the miners' families to light 13 candles of honor. First lady Gayle Manchin handed each family a statue of a coal miner.
"We cannot know the purpose of this tragedy," said Gov. Joe Manchin, "but I pledge to you we will determine the cause."
Mike Rose, whose father-in-law was fallen miner Jerry Groves, said during the service that the family takes comfort in knowing that Groves "is in a better place, being held in the arms of a loving savior."
Organizers of the service said family and friends had requested that the media not seek comment from them before or after the service.
During the two-hour service a heart-wrenching photo montage showed the men as they were in life — husbands, fathers, fishermen and West Virginians who followed a strong tradition of digging coal.
"There are no better men than coal miners," said author Homer Hickam, who wrote the memoir "Rocket Boys" about growing up in a southern West Virginia coal community. "The American economy rests on the back of our coal miners. We could not prosper without them."
Outside the church, a miner's helmet sat atop a wooden cross. In a nearby memory tent, photographs of the miners were affixed to easels, and a community shaken by the accident was encouraged to leave personal messages for the men's families.
"God definitely has 12 more angels. God bless you all," read one note, left beside the photo of Jesse L. Jones, 44.
Another urged 56-year-old Jerry Groves to "enjoy heaven until we get there."
"It's a small town. Everybody knows everyone," said Jonas Brinks, a 19-year-old student who said his family owned a hunting camp next door to one owned by Jones.
On the college campus, a few miles from the mine, family members wore white ribbons bearing the words "Sago 2006." More ribbons were tied to trees and light poles, and sheets that had been spray-painted with the words: "God bless Sago miners" hung from windows of a nearby dormitory.
David Blevins made the trip from his home in Tuscaloosa, Ala., to honor the miners Sunday. His own father had been among 13 miners killed in a 2001 mine explosion and fire in Alabama.
"We know exactly what they're going through. What they're feeling and what they will be feeling," Blevins said. "Grief, agony and very angry. And I'm sure hate will go through their hearts. It will take time for that to heal."