A Dozen Miracles Short

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For three ecstatic hours the people of Upshur County, W. Va., believed another miracle in the mines had occurred. How else could 12 men trapped underground, in an airless mine shaft, survive for almost two days? “We’re just completely overjoyed,” said Lynette Roby, a resident of Sago, W. Va. She waited at 1:30 a.m. on a muddy road in the rain to catch a glimpse of the rescued miners through ambulance windows.

As it turned out, the news that a dozen miners had been rescued was nothing more than a heartbreaking rumor. Only one man made it out alive. Someone had misunderstood a conversation and believed the miners had survived and the false report had spread in a nearby Baptist church were family and friends had gathered. In an instant, a scene of euphoria turned to shock, sadness and anger. Family members moaned, clutching their foreheads and stomachs. One man jumped in his pickup truck, drove through the mud and gravel and nearly rammed a news reporter and sheriff’s cruiser, before throwing the truck in reverse and roaring off. "Oh, I am angry now,” said Sam Lantz, whose son-in-law Marty Bennett was killed. “They lied to us.”

However the rumor started—the CEO of the mine company blamed it on a “miscommunication”—the tragedy hit this Appalachian community hard. Most everyone here knows a miner or works in the mines himself, and hundreds of residents came out to support the families and friends of the trapped men. West Virginia’s governor, Joe Manchin, was on the scene but he too seemed caught up in the euphoria of the false report. “Miracles do happen,” he said, before learning the truth.

The ordeal began early Monday morning when a powerful explosion erupted inside an old, sealed-off section of the mine. The blast reverberated for miles around. “I thought the roof of my house was coming off,” said Lynette Roby. One group of miners had lingered close to the mine entrance and was able to escape. Another group of 13 had ventured about 2.5 miles into the shaft and was trapped in a cloud of dust and carbon monoxide. One member of this group, fire boss Marty Bennett, had been traveling a few hundred feet in the rear, monitoring oxygen levels, and was killed instantly by the blast. The first group of miners ran into the shaft to try and save their friends, but was forced out by the toxic gases. As the rescue operation dragged on, with workers slowly reventilating the mine, video cameras lowered into holes indicated that the trapped men might have escaped the blast. Their transport rail car was discovered empty but intact, and the miners each carried an emergency oxygen tank, providing air for about 1.5 hours.

Then, shortly before midnight, someone burst into the Sago Baptist church and announced that there were 12 survivors. Hundreds of people surged out the door. Church bells rang. For a brief spell, it appeared, there would be a repeat of the stunning 2002 rescue of nine Pennsylvania miners, who had survived more than three days underground after their mine had flooded.

In reality, rescuers at the bottom of the West Virginia mine had said there were no more survivors—and rescuers at the surface, listening through a scratchy connection, had misunderstood. "They managed to turn this town upside down", said Terry Hinchman, a boyhood friend of a deceased miner, Fred Ware Jr., and cousin of another, Marty Bennett. The only survivor: Ronald McCloy, age 23, the youngest of the group. Taken to Ruby Hospital in Morgantown, he was listed in serious condition.