This story originally appeared in the Charleston Daily Mail on April 07, 2010.
WHITESVILLE – Ed Runyon, 83, walked to the flag pole in his front yard shortly before noon Tuesday and raised his American flag for the first time this year. He tied it off at half-staff.
Although he didn’t know any of the victims of the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, the retired miner said the incident troubles him deeply.
“It’s a sad thing,” Runyon said.
Runyon worked as a miner for 34 years, suffering two broken fingers and a broken toe during his career. The Korean War veteran said he counts himself lucky he didn’t see any explosions, although he was working underground when several men died over the years.
He said he knew something was wrong at the mine, located a few miles from his house, when he saw a slew of police cars and fire trucks speeding along W.Va. 3 to the scene Monday afternoon.
“We knew something happened,” Runyon said. “Then it got to us pretty quick.”
Many in this Boone County town of about 500 people expressed sadness and shock.
Marlena Adkins, 45, said her husband, Robert, works at the mine and could have easily been among the victims had the company not switched workers’ shifts.
Robert now works the same hours as the victims did – a six day-on, three day-off schedule. His first day off work was Monday.
“That would’ve been the shift he would’ve been on,” Marlena said.
She said her husband was hit hard by the tragedy.
“He was pretty shook up,” she said. “He said, ‘This may do me in. I may retire.’ ”
Tobie Hilderbrand, pastor at the Marsh Fork Worship Center in nearby Eunice, said his stepson, Kory Ferrell, 20, worked on the same shift until Massey transferred him a couple of weeks ago.
“All of a sudden they needed some guys at the other mine,” he said.
Hilderbrand said Kory was initially upset about the move because of the co-workers he had become friends with. Obviously, the family is now thankful.
“The Lord’s really worked on our behalf on that,” Hilderbrand said.
But the family did not escape the tragedy. Hilderbrand said his wife’s uncle, Ricky Workman, was one of the miners killed.
“It’s hit home pretty hard,” he said.
Hilderbrand’s church opened its doors to those needing refreshments and prayer.
The church also changed its front sign to read, “Pray for our miners.”
Someone later affixed a small paper note to the sign: “With deep sympathy and concern for all miners who have lost their lives and all who are still trapped – (from) students and faculty at Marshall University.”
Church member Billy Pettry said the church would remain open “as long as anybody needs us.”
Pettry, a retired miner with black lung, said he once worked with many of the victims and some of their fathers. He was close to Workman, a former classmate and basketball teammate.
“We were like brothers there for a long time,” he said.
Mike Gordon and other members of the New Life Assembly in Pettus are keeping their lights on, too. Gordon said he didn’t leave the church Monday night and he was still there at mid-morning Tuesday.
“We’ll be here all day, I know,” he said. “If we’re not, somebody will be.”
Gordon said about 80 percent of men in the church, including Pastor Gary Williams, are coal miners. He works at the Pine Ridge Mine in Prenter.
“It could’ve been us instead of them,” Gordon said.
He said no family members have passed through the church, but plenty of rescue workers and journalists have.
“They came in off and on all night,” he said.
Gordon said the church doesn’t have a radio or TV on hand to keep updated with the news but is monitoring a police scanner. He said church members get most of their news from people returning from the mines.
“The information we’re getting is only what people are getting and bringing back,” he said.
He said the church members were deeply saddened when they heard of the miners who had lost their lives but are praying for the four miners still trapped inside.
“We’ve got hope,” Gordon said.