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Patrick Hruby

Something Akin to Normal

In wake of coal mining disaster, West Virginia town tries to heal through sports

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. -- Something akin to normal: the flat white light of a high school gymnasium. A Thursday night wrestling meet.

On a blue mat laid across a hardwood basketball court, the boys of Buckhannon-Upshur High stretch and grapple, getting loose. The visiting North Marion squad jogs in a lazy semicircle, half the team sporting Mohawk haircuts. The 140-pound class is sponsored by Sam's Pizza. Heavyweights are brought to you by Strader Backhoe Service.

In the bleachers, parents and locals wear ribbons pinned to wool sweaters and broken-in baseball caps.

Ribbons, black like coal.

"In a way, these ribbons are silly," says Sheri Haver-Newbrough, 47, a resident of Upshur County. "But they're just to show the families that we support them. That if we could take their grief, we would."

Three days earlier, 13 men went into the darkness of the nearby Sago Mine, here in the mountains of West Virginia. Uncles, brothers, fathers, husbands. Going to work.

Only one came out alive.

And the blast that killed the others is still being felt -- by relatives, by loved ones, by the 5,700 residents of this close-knit county seat.

"Every person in this community in this building tonight knows someone who was there," says Carla Hinchman, 40, a Buckhannon resident. "People are worried about the families. Even the kids have been glued to the TV. It's been pretty depressing."

Miner Alva "Marty" Bennett, 51, one who didn't come out, was the father-in-law of Hinchman's niece. Hinchman sits near the floor, watching her son, Shane Reed. She's tired. Worn down. Hasn't slept much since Monday, since word first spread of the terrible accident. A hospice nurse, she's no stranger to suffering.

This, she says, is different.

"At least my patients know they're dying," Hinchman says. "They have the chance to say their good-byes. It'll take a long time for people to move on."

Two rows up, Haver-Newbrough cuts strips from a spool of black ribbon. Yvette Squires hands out the last of them. Squires, 36, lives in Clarksburg, about 30 minutes north.

She grew up here. Her father once worked in the Sago Mine.

The two women sit together, taking in the first local sporting event to be held since the mine explosion. They chat about their sons: Levi Bender, a sophomore, and Marshal Newbrough, a lanky, 14-year-old freshman whose black knee sleeves nearly engulf his slender legs.

"I think that the boys are ready to participate," says Squires, who has two other sons in local schools. "So they have some normalcy in their lives. It's been chaos in their communities."

"They do have to return to normal," says Haver-Newbrough.

In the bleachers, Sheri Haver-Newbrough and Yvette Squires pass out black ribbons to parents and locals. Most residents were somehow connected to the 13 miners.

Squires softly nods. Across the floor, Buckhannon-Upshur coach J.P. Tenny stands near the scorer's table. His home is two miles from the Sago Mine. He spent the week getting stopped by state troopers assigned to limit access to the roads leading to the explosion site.

By day, Tenny is an administrator at Braxton County High School, some 45 minutes away. A co-worker, he says, lived next door to one of the miners who died.

Another co-worker knew some of the victims. Both, says Tenny, spent the previous three days in a fog, checking for online news updates whenever they had the chance.
Tenny could only watch, equally helpless.

"Returning to normal things is helpful," he says. "But I don't think we're there yet. It's still on the front of everybody's mind."


Something else akin to normal: Players from the Buckhannon-Upshur JV boys basketball team huddle in a stairwell outside the visiting locker room at Morgantown's University High. It's Friday evening, one night after the wrestling meet, and the Buccaneers have just stumbled through a lopsided loss to the home team.

Shoulders sag. Red eyes peer out from frustrated faces. A few of the boys slap their jerseys against a safety rail.

I missed one …

I couldn't make anything …

That guy was face-guarding me the whole time …

Sam Stalnaker slumps to the floor, spent. He is 16 years old, the team's dervish of a point guard, the proud holder of a recently issued West Virginia driver's license.
Over the last four days, he's slept a total of 13 hours.

Marty Bennett was his great-uncle.

"It's been tough," Sam admits. "He was a great guy."

At family gatherings, Sam recalls, Bennett was always one of the first people to seek him out. The two would talk football, pro and college, always coming back to their beloved West Virginia Mountaineers.

"He would have loved the Sugar Bowl," Sam says.

When Sam was 7, his grandmother passed away. At the time, he didn't quite comprehend what was happening. Losing Bennett has been harder to take. Sam worries about his family, worries about Bennett's wife.

Aunt Judy, Sam explains, needs an oxygen tank to breathe. When she first heard about the mine explosion, she went through two tanks in less than five hours. The family feared the worst.

"But so far," Sam says, "she's doing better than we thought."

For that, Sam is grateful. And also for this: He has another cousin who was scheduled to work in the mine on Monday morning.

After the blast, his shift was called off.


The news was terrifying. Not knowing was worse. Just before Monday afternoon practice, Buckhannon-Upshur JV boys basketball coach Chris Woods received a call from his mother.

There's been a blast at Sago.

Woods, 28, swallowed hard.

"You know that when an accident happens in a mine, it usually means a fatality," he says. "People don't come out."

Information was scarce. By Woods' own estimation, he knows dozens of people who work at Sago. He did the grisly mental arithmetic, the same morbid calculus going on all around Buckhannon.

Who was hurt? Was it his neighbor? His best friend's father?

"I felt so helpless," he says.

When the trapped miners finally were identified, Woods was relieved. And saddened. He knew none of the victims well. He knew three of them well enough.

Marty Bennett did backhoe work around Woods' home.

Fred Ware Jr., 59, and Jerry Lee Groves, 56, were both customers at the Woods family appliance shop.

Groves, Woods recalls, had been browsing in the store around Christmas.

"My heart goes out to the people who had family members die," Woods says. "I can't imagine if it was my dad in there."

Woods has been married for three years. His daughter is 18 months old. All week long, he gave his wife and child extra hugs and kisses.

Because he could. Because he was one of the lucky ones.


Route 20 winds through the center of Buckhannon. It's a two-lane street linking the highway with a Wal-Mart, a funeral home, a Wendy's, the office of the local newspaper, the Record-Delta, and the state police station that squats in front of Buckhannon-Upshur High.

Exit the highway onto Route 20, and a sign touts the school's two state soccer championships. Farther down the road, a larger placard lists the schedule and scores of the football team, which last year lost just one regular-season game while advancing to the state playoffs.

"For the football team, the mayor even dedicated a 'Buccaneer Day,'" recalls Brandon Long, 17, a defensive end on the Buckhannon-Upshur football team and a center for the basketball squad. "When the basketball team went to the state championships in Charleston, people lined the streets to cheer on the buses."

Last week, there were no buses, no cheers. Just network camera crews setting up location shots beneath makeshift signposts of grief:

• Above the Lone Steer Steakhouse: PRAY FOR OUR MINING FAMILIES.

• Outside the Donut Shop: HEALING IS HARD.


Randal McCloy Jr., a 27-year-old from Simpson, was the mining accident's sole survivor. As of Sunday evening, he was still in critical condition but had begun to breathe on his own.

"All those signs that say pray for the miners families," says Matt Fuchs, a sports reporter at the Record-Delta. "They used to read 'Go Bucs.'"


Danny Caruso felt happy. And guilty. Guilty for feeling happy. He wasn't alone. On Monday night, West Virginia upset Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, 38-35, one of the biggest wins in school history.

Like so many others in the state, Caruso spent the game flipping channels -- from ABC to CNN, from CNN to ABC. The varsity basketball coach at Buckhannon-Upshur high, Caruso first heard about the Sago accident the morning of the game. The father of the school's freshman coach, Levi Fletcher, works with a mine rescue team.

Team practice, Caruso says, was sad and slow. Distracted. For him and for thousands of other Mountaineer fans, watching the Sugar Bowl was more of the same.

Should they be excited? Could they be excited?

Sports isn't real, Caruso thought. These are real people. Real families. His father was friends with miner George Hamner Jr., 54, who died in the accident.

Was it right to care so much about a football game?

"Usually, when you turn on CNN, they're halfway across the world," Caruso says. "Now, you turn it on and they're in your backyard. The Sago Mine is right at the hill behind our school. It's just sad.

"There's a feeling that it can't be happening, that it doesn't happen to us. We're a safe community, where people take care of each other."

Shelly Poe can relate. As West Virginia's sports information director, she watched the Sugar Bowl from the Georgia Dome press box. The press box had an Internet connection. As the Mountaineers raced to a 28-0 lead, the calls came in; when the team pulled off a fake punt to seal a wild victory, the phone was still ringing.


Any word about Sago?


Anything new on the trapped miners?

"Even after the game, the coaches were asking about it," Poe says. "If you and your family are raised in West Virginia, it's inevitable that you have a relative, a neighbor, someone you went to school with who works in the mines."

That much is certain. Legendary pro football linebacker Sam Huff grew up in a West Virginia coal camp. He lost five relatives in a mine explosion.

Mountaineers football coach Rich Rodriguez, a native of tiny Grant Town, is the son of a former coal miner. His brother worked underground. So did his uncles.

At the Georgia Dome, jersey-clad Mountaineers fans held signs reading "PRAY FOR OUR MINERS." Following the game, a subdued Rodriguez called the biggest win of his coaching career "a tough day for our state."

"It's sobering," Poe says. "It reminds us what we're playing for, hardworking people and their way of life.

"It doesn't have to be personal to be family. At least, that's the way it is here."


Sam Stalnaker saw it all: Jubilation replaced by shock, anger mixed with agony. He was among the hopeful packed into Sago Baptist Church Tuesday night -- on hand when 12 men were said to be alive, mistakenly. On hand when 11 were subsequently pronounced dead.

This is what Sam remembers:

"Some lady at the church got it on a walkie-talkie that they were alive. All of them. It went through the church in seconds. I called my dad and brother at home. They headed over. Some relatives I have in Georgia also started driving up.

"We were going crazy. A guy comes in, takes the mike. He says, 'We're going to get them out of the mine and bring them straight to the church. Give us an hour.'

"Well, an hour passes. Then two hours. I wasn't personally thinking anything was wrong. I could see from where I was that they had sent seven, eight ambulances up to the site. I thought maybe they needed to clean them up, give them some oxygen, good things like that.

"I thought it would just take a while.

"At 3 a.m., the governor and the main news conference guy -- Ben Hatfield, the guy who was always on TV -- came into the church, followed by about 30 state police officers. Right then, it got quiet. People knew something was wrong. Because they wouldn't be bringing in all of those police otherwise.

"He said … he said, 'I feel like the information I gave you was wrong.'

"It went crazy. People were screaming, charging the stage. Hatfield and the governor were out of there quick.

"That was probably a good idea."


Thursday afternoon. A gray, sullen sky. Snowflakes drift and fall, settling on a dugout roof. The baseball field at West Virginia Wesleyan College is empty, silent; above the adjacent tree line, the white spire of Wesley Chapel tapers upward.

Wesley Chapel is the largest church in West Virginia. It also is where the miners' families were brought to pray, and wait, before making the long, empty walk to a nearby elementary school gymnasium that served as a temporary morgue.

In the chapel, recalls Bob Skinner, there were tears. Tears from the wives, the parents, the relatives.

Tears from the clergy on hand to console them.

"They were as devastated as anybody," says Skinner, director of marketing and communication at West Virginia Wesleyan. "I found myself trying to comfort them. They were mourning, too."

Like so many others, Skinner prayed for a miracle, went to bed Tuesday night expecting as much. At 4:30 a.m., his phone rang.

The bodies will start arriving at 7 a.m.

A half-hour later, Skinner was at the chapel. He met with the Red Cross. Set up an area for the press, for the phalanx of reporters who were sure to arrive.

Decades ago, Skinner dreamed of becoming a professional sports broadcaster. He worked as a color commentator at the 1985 NAIA basketball tournament.

That was then. On Wednesday afternoon, he found himself serving as a go-between for the families and the media, a de facto spokesman for both the living and the lost.

"I'm a native West Virginian," he says. "I had a grandfather who was a coal miner, so I can certainly relate to the whole situation. And one of my responsibilities is crisis management. So I guess it falls into my job description."

The job can break a man's heart. On New Year's Eve, a West Virginia Wesleyan student and his brother were killed in a car accident following their sister's wedding. Skinner was asked to spread the word.

"I try to put myself into these people's shoes," he says. "I can't imagine the grief that these families are going through."

Skinner pauses. He speaks through a cell phone, en route to his 13-year-old son's middle school basketball game in Taylor County. Dad is the team's official scorer.

"At least," he adds, "tonight is an hour of not thinking about what is going on."


As Skinner listened to West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin address the mourners gathered at Wesley Chapel, Caruso drove to practice. Basketball has always been his shelter, his refuge from the ugliness of the world.

Not today.

How do you talk to them? What should you say to those young men?

"We've had students die in car wrecks," Caruso says. "Earlier this year, one of our junior players' nephews died at birth. Those things are horrible. But we've never had anything to this extent. There were a lot of long faces at practice staring back at me."

Sam Stalnaker wasn't among them. School had been canceled for the day. Practice was optional. Caruso had spoken to Stalnaker's father, Tim, that morning.

What can I say?

Caruso sought out his wife, Christal, a social worker. Maybe, he decided, it was best to say nothing. Maybe it's enough to try to give people a team they could be proud of.

"She told me that sometimes, kids need an escape," Caruso says. "Those couple of hours can be a distraction. They don't always want to talk."


Sam Stalnaker didn't want to talk. For three days at Sago Baptist, he held his emotions in check, trying to stay strong for his family. On Thursday morning, he was back in school. He slipped on a pair of headphones, sat at his desk. Zoned out. His first-period teacher let him be.

"During second period, we got to talking about the accident," he recalls. "That's when I lost it."

Sam went to the nurse's office, broke down. He spoke with a counselor, one of three employed by the school. Principal Don Swisher brought in two others.

What else could he do? Like Caruso, he wasn't quite sure.

"This is a small community," Swisher says. "People's lives are intertwined. You don't really know how many kids are related to the miners or have relationships with them. It's a far-reaching thing."

Lunchtime. The school's flag flies at half-mast. Swisher stands in a hallway next to the cafeteria, holding a pink, oversized greeting card. The front reads "MINER MIRACLE." The inside says "MAJOR HOPE."

A group of art students made the card. They plan to send it to Randal McCloy Jr. Swisher gathers signatures.

"There'll be more than one thing that comes out of our school," promises Matt McCourt, 18, a tailback on the football team. "And I'm sure things will come from more places than our school. To wake up and hear the news yesterday was heartbreaking."


As the JV basketball team looks lethargic, disorganized in transition, a step slow in Morgantown on Friday night, Chris Woods paces in front of the Buckhannon-Upshur bench, arms crossed. Midway through the second half, they trail by 30 points.

No one asks why.

Woods shouts encouragement to his center: Hey, Andrew, help us out here! He calls a timeout, puts a hand on his chin. His manner is calm, sedate. Even sitting next to the team huddle, you have to strain to hear him.

During the Sago rescue operation, workers drilled ventilation holes deep into the earth. The holes, Woods says, are about two miles from his house.

"This whole week, I go to practice for two hours, then fly home in my car, kick on CNN," he says after the game. "I'm at the point where I just want to do something else."

Sam Stalnaker wipes his hands against the soles of his high-tops, his sandy brown hair matted with sweat. He plays with abandon, diving headfirst for a steal, whipping a no-look pass to a teammate, crashing to the floor after a whirling layup attempt.

Get big! implores Caruso, sitting next to the scorer's table. Get big!

With five minutes left, Stalnaker comes out of the game. He gives Caruso a high-five, plops down at the far end of the bench. Gulping water from a bottle, he sits alone, winded and wide-eyed.

For a moment, the loss bothers him. This is progress.

"[The accident] has been on my mind 24-7," Stalnaker says later. "In my dreams. Everywhere I go. Out on the court, I was thinking about basketball, and only basketball."


Yvette Squires is thinking about her son. Thinking out loud, in fact. Can Levi Bender avoid getting pinned?

"Oh shoot!" she screams.

The wrestling meet is well underway. In the stands, a few members of the Buckhannon-Upshur girls basketball team trickle in after practice; on the mat, Bender is tangled up with an opponent from Elkins High, dressed in a bright orange leotard.

The Elkins boy grabs Bender by the leg. Bender squirms away.

"Atta boy!" Squires cheers.

J.P. Tenny sits on a folding chair, catty-corner from the bleachers. He leans forward, hands balled into fists. The match is tied at 4-4. The official stops play. Bender approaches Tenny.

"He's bleeding!" Squires yelps.

Bender cleans up. The match resumes. He gives up a quick point.

"Get your right hand back!" barks Tenny. "Get your right hand back and free!"

Time is running out. Bender feints, lunges, twists his opponent to the mat. Too late. No point. Bender slaps the mat in frustration, the match over.

Afterward, wrestlers from both schools line up for handshakes. Sheri Haver-Newbrough shakes her head, her words tinged with disbelief.

"We are just all acting as if nothing happened," she says.

Haver-Newbrough drops her voice.

"It feels good, though."


Uncles, brothers, fathers, husbands. According to the U.S. Department of Labor Mine Safety and Health Administration, there were 165 coal mine deaths between 2000 and 2004, 165 unspeakable losses in communities just like Buckhannon. Ripples of sorrow, radiating outward. Touching everyone.

"There are so many thousands employed by mines," Matt McCourt says. "It just hits home to realize they go into danger every day."

This morning and the next, the many thousands will rise, say good-bye to their loved ones, and head back to work. Back into the darkness below. The people they leave behind will act as if nothing is happening.

This, too, is something akin to normal.

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