W.Va. mining industry mourns 29 explosion victims

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP)—At 3:02 p.m. April 5, computers on the surface detected a major seismic event deep inside the mine. It came from about a mile and a half inside the mountain, near an area known as the “Glory Hole.”

A half hour from the end of his nine-hour shift, coal car operator Melvin Lynch, 50, of Mount Hope, felt his ears pop. Suddenly, the mine went dark.

The power goes out occasionally when someone runs over a cable, so no one on the section panicked.

When the shift was over, Lynch and the other men on his crew made their way to the surface. It was only when another crew emerged and reported that they’d been showered with debris that Lynch knew that something was wrong.

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PRAYER ENDS IN SORROW—In this April 7 photo, Melvin Lynch speaks to a reporter at his home in Mount Hope, W.Va. Lynch was working in the Upper Big Branch mine when a section of the mine exploded. Lynch’s brother Roosevelt was killed in the explosion.

By 4 p.m., the first word of fatalities reached the surface. Lynch’s older brother, Roosevelt, 59, was among them.

Around the same time, Gov. Joe Manchin was in South Florida, enjoying a visit with friends. The legislative session had just ended, a budget had been approved, so Manchin and his wife, Gayle, jumped on a plane Easter Sunday and headed south.

Manchin was chatting when a member of his security detail came in and said there’d been an accident.

“We think we have a problem,” the officer said. “We think there might be some fatalities.”

Manchin’s mind instantly reeled back to a frigid January morning in 2006. Manchin was in Atlanta to cheer on West Virginia University’s Mountaineers against the Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl when word came of a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in Upshur County.

The 12 resulting deaths inspired state and federal safety legislation requiring coal operators to improve underground communications, and to equip their mines with airtight chambers stocked with enough food, water and oxygen to last several days.

As Manchin—whose own uncle was among 78 killed in a 1968 mine explosion—rushed to catch a plane home, he found some comfort in the thought that if any of the Montcoal miners had survived the initial blast, they had somewhere to hunker down and await rescue.

The state’s mine rescue team and several others were in Logan for training when news of the blast reached them. By 4:30 p.m., they were racing toward Montcoal.

West Virginia’s coal industry remembered the 29 men who died in the explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal April 5. Safety training and maintenance replaced mining at most state mines during the day of mourning requested by Manchin. Virginia-based Massey said the work stoppage was an appropriate way to honor the dead.

They ranged in age from 20 to 61. Some had been miners only a few months, others for 34 years. Their passions ranged from karate, farming, swimming, hunting, basketball and the beach. Collectively they loved family and working at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Creek mine.

The 29 killed in the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1970 leave behind sons and daughters, parents, grandchildren and a network of friends in their small, close-knit communities in southern West Virginia.

William Roosevelt Lynch wore many hats, including that of a coal miner.

Over his career, the 59-year-old who went by Roosevelt was a teacher, coached three sports and was about to welcome his fourth grandchild into the world. He also worked in the mines for more than 30 years.

Lynch was among the dead, said his brother, Melvin Lynch of Mount Hope, who also was in the mine at the time.

Roosevelt Lynch was a longtime Oak Hill resident who coached basketball, football and track and taught on the high school and middle school levels.

“A lot of people around town called him coach,” Melvin Lynch said. “He would substitute teach, then coach and then work in the mines. He used to have that rigorous schedule.”

Oak Hill High basketball coach Fred Ferri said Roosevelt Lynch also competed in a summer basketball league in Beckley.

“He was in excellent condition,” Ferri said. “He played last summer. He’s out there running with kids. Roosevelt was a heck of an athlete.”

On April 15, President Barack Obama ordered a sweeping review of coal mines with poor safety records and called on federal officials to strengthen laws “so riddled with loopholes that they allow unsafe conditions to continue.”

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