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National News

April 7, 2010

Disaster rattles town where life revolves around the mines

WHITESVILLE, W.Va. — John Clemons started working at Performance Coal Co.'s Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal five months ago, much to his father's dismay.

But in this community, his father knows, coal is practically the only business.

"There ain't nothing else to do here," said Jerry Bearfield, Clemons' father. "This town died a long time ago."

Clemons' shift ended at 9:30 a.m. Monday, about 5 1/2 hours before an explosion ripped through the mine, killing at least 25 people. He knew some of the victims, though they weren't friends since he hasn't worked there long.

Still, he said, "It hits you hard."

Bearfield, who has refused to go in the mines, instead working jobs in security or auto repair, told his son, "This ought to make you think twice about going back in there."

Clemons, 25, looked at the ground and didn't answer.

Asked if he was going back, he said, "Yeah."

People in this community - about 40 miles south of Charleston, only a few miles north of the Motcoal mine - know the dangers of working in the mines. Many put on a hard hat and head underground anyway.

"There's nothing else in this area," said Mike Gordon, who with his wife, Tammy, was offering support to families of miners involved in the explosion. The Gordons' 21-year-old son is a coal miner, though he wasn't involved.

Gordon said it just as easily could be their family mourning a loss. He reminisced about how their son grew up with several of the men in the mine and played Little League baseball together.

"Your heart breaks when it's somewhere else," he said, "but when it's here in the area ... it just hits close to home."

The Gordons were helping at New Life Assembly, just outside Whitesville, where Pastor Gary Williams had kept open the doors since Monday evening.

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