BUCKHANNON — The men who died in the Sago Mine were hunters and campers. They studied the Bible. They played cards. They rooted for Dale Earnhardt Jr. or Jeff Gordon.At least three of them wrote notes to their families as they suffocated in the mine. Despite their ordeal, they sought to comfort the ones left behind.In future months, officials will study how they died after the Jan. 2 explosion. But on Sunday, more than 2,000 people joined family members at West Virginia Wesleyan College to celebrate how these men lived.“They were men who loved their families, men who worked hard, men of integrity and honor, men who laughed and could tell a good story,” said author Homer Hickam, who grew up in Coalwood. “Of course they could. They’re West Virginians.”
Hickam read the now-famous note scrawled by miner Martin Toler Jr. on the back of an insurance form: “It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep. I love you,” Toler wrote. “Tell all I'll see them on the other side.”“It’s the most eloquent thing I ever read,” Hickam said.Two other men also left notes, said the Rev. Ed McDaniels of the Christian Fellowship Church of Buckhannon. McDaniels showed the people in Wesley Chapel a slide show of each of the men in happier times and shared stories from their lives.In his note, Tom Anderson thanked his wife of 15 years and told his 10-year-old son, Ti, to “Grow up and be a good man.”McDaniels said that Ti Anderson, after learning his father had died, could be heard comforting his mother, saying, “It’ll be OK. Everything will be OK.”David Lewis told his wife and children that he loved them and asked God for forgiveness in his note. “I will see you again,” he wrote.Lewis’ wife, Samantha, asked that McDaniels share something about her quiet husband with the worshippers: “She wants you to know that David had a wonderful soul.”Marshall Winans was shown in a photo holding his dog, Reno. Winans was a “skilled hunter with a soft heart” whose family made sure they listed Reno in his obituary, McDaniels said.Some of the miners were especially devout. Jackie Weaver would trace “Jesus saves” in the coal dust of a mantrip, the cars that took them into the mines.
Jim Bennett asks, “Do you know the Lord as your savior?” on his answering machine message, which was played for the audience.Jerry Groves had a special love for his grandchildren. Marty Bennett was “a good ol’ boy” who would give handicapped children rides on his ATV. George Junior Hamner was an avid hunter with a wonderful smile. Jesse Jones loved camping, pitching horseshoes and digging ramps.
Two miners were remembered for their great sense of fun. Fred “Bear” Ware Jr. was someone who would go outside on a cold day, make a snowball and take it inside to throw at someone.Terry Helms would hide his fellow workers’ lunch pails or replace his niece’s pro-Earnhardt license plate with a pro-Gordon plate.McDaniel gave a special thank you to Helms’ children, Nick and Amber, who gave countless media interviews during the disaster.“You spoke so eloquently to the media and made us so proud,” he said.
Surviving miner Randal McCloy Jr. was not forgotten during the service. His wife, Anna, entered the chapel at the beginning of the service. She was supported on either arm by Gov. Joe Manchin and first lady Gayle Manchin.They helped her approach the altar and light a red candle for her husband, who lies in a coma at a West Virginia University hospital.
Other family members lit 12 white candles to represent the miners who were lost, and each received a foot-tall black statuette of a coal miner. Several family members clutched teddy bears they’d been given by volunteers.Manchin said he saw 13 distinct families when he arrived at the Sago Baptist Church on the day of the explosion. By the next morning, he no longer could tell the families apart. They had become one family, he said, just like the state has become one family in its grief.Manchin promised that family members would be a part of an open investigation into the mine disaster. That is something he wanted but never received after the 1968 mine explosion in Farmington that killed his uncle, he said.“I had to wait 20 years to find out what happened in Farmington,” Manchin said. “We’re going to know something by June.”“We cannot know the purpose of this tragedy, but I promise you, we will find the cause,” he said. “Your loved ones did not die in vain.”Several other politicians were in attendance, including Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., and Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.Sitting behind the families were executives from the Sago Mine’s owner, International Coal Group, including chief executive Ben Hatfield. They did not participate in the service or speak with the media afterward.Fewer than 20 members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church held a demonstration across the campus from the memorial service, without major incident.The group, led by a disbarred lawyer and his extended family, carried inflammatory signs proclaiming that the 12 miners were in hell because America tolerates the existence of gays and lesbians. They also sang a slur-filled version of “Take Me Home, County Roads.”A much larger group gathered to object to their presence. At one point, they joined hands and turned their backs to them to block them from the church.“We want to hold hands and unite as a community against ignorance and hate,” said Theresa Bunner of Buckhannon.This is the last large-scale memorial planned for the Sago miners. After being besieged by national and international media for two weeks, locals expect their communities to return to normal.Soon, the phones will end their nonstop ringing and families will be left alone with their grief. Someday soon, a daughter or a son will pick up the phone to tell his father some good news, only to remember he’s gone.But the people of Buckhannon, Philippi, Newburg, Hacker Valley and Pickens, and people from all over West Virginia, promised Sunday that they will never forget the 12 who died or the one who survives.Mike Rose, the son-in-law of Jerry Groves, fought back tears as he thanked all the people who have tried to comfort them these past two weeks.“Your prayers have sustained us through this difficult time,” he said. “Your prayers are the only thing getting us through right now.”To contribute to an educational fund to help the miner’s families, contact the West Virginia Council of Churches, at 344-3141, or go online to www.wvcc.org.To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.