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Questions Hang in Aftermath of Mine Disaster

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

The bodies of 12 coal miners are now at the state medical examiner's office in Charleston, West Virginia. According to The Associated Press, some of the miners left notes to their families explaining that they were not suffering. The men were found at the deepest point of the Sago Mine after an explosion Monday morning trapped them inside. The only survivor of the accident is still in a coma.

NORRIS: The families of the miners and the people who live in the area near the mine are still reeling from events of the past few days. NPR's Audie Cornish visited one community, and she sent this report.

AUDIE CORNISH reporting:

There was nothing else left to wait for at the Sago Baptist Church down the way from the Sago Mine. And so after days of vigils and tears, the site is empty and silent. Yellow police tape lay tangled in the mud, and the abandoned folding chairs and card tables were left as is on the lawn. But 27-year-old Elton Walmsley Jr.(ph) was still drawn to the site, and he says despite the week's tragedy, he's still drawn to life in the mines.

Mr. ELTON WALMSLEY Jr.: I know my great-grandfather worked on and off in the coal mines, and my grandfather worked 30-something years in the coal mines, and my dad's worked in the coal mines for, like, 22, 23 years. And just--I'm going to go to the mines as soon as I can get my classes and everything in. It's better pay and, hey, it's a family tradition and it's a way of life for West Virginia.

CORNISH: Walmsley's father was inside the mine when the explosion occurred Monday morning. He's one of several miners who managed to escape, a blessing, his son says, that should not be overlooked.

Mr. WALMSLEY: They're saying there was only survivor, but there was actually more than that in the mines whenever everything happened. There was more survivors then that that actually walked out, which it's all a miracle. That's a miracle, too.

CORNISH: But in Walmsley's hometown of Buckhannon, it's hard for people to think about miracles in a place where they feel they've been robbed of one.

Ms. JOAN HARMON(ph): Everybody knows that everybody is hurting over this. You know, whether they've got a direct connection or not, everybody's brokenhearted over this. Everybody wishes the outcome had been a lot different.

CORNISH: Joan Harmon lives in the town of Buckhannon and helped serve food to rescue workers the night the miners' bodies were found. She's also the head of a youth center that's been converted into a grief counseling site for the community. No one has shown up yet, but Harmon says even if they're not in private counseling, they're all talking to each other.

Ms. HARMON: Everywhere. I walked in Wal-Mart, you could hear people talking about, you know, some aspect of the incident, you know. Some people discussing, you know, the miscommunication that happened and some people discussing, you know, they knew someone that was--you know, had a family member involved. It just seemed like every aisle I walked down, it was the topic of discussion.

CORNISH: From pizza shops to auto dealerships, store owners have adjusted their window signs from `Pray for the miners' to `Pray for the miners' families.'

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

CORNISH: At Aesop's Book Store & Cafe on Main Street, there are just a few customers today, and those that are here are quiet. Waitresses Deanne Pulliam(ph) and Sarah Carrero(ph) say the town is so small, everybody feels the impact of the loss.

Unidentified Woman #1: It's devastating, it's shocking. It's, like, wondering how it could have been prevented, you know, what could have happened.

Unidentified Woman #2: The mines are dangerous work, and, you know, you know this stuff can happen, but it rarely does. So when it does, it's just, you know, horrible.

CORNISH: The women say people don't fully appreciate the danger coal miners are facing every day, and they expect it won't be long before the miners and their work are forgotten again. Audie Cornish, NPR News, Buckhannon, West Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.