Posted by: mseewv | April 13, 2010

Montani Semper Liberi

Mountaineers Are Always Free!

Unfortunately the image above is one that many West Virginian’s will not soon forget.

Just days after our state was on such a huge high with the university playing basketball in its first Final Four game in 51 years, the state was rocked by tragedy.

An explosion erupted in the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal W. Va. changing the lives of families not only in this small town of just over 500 but of all families in the state of West Virginia. By the time Katie and I were heading home from Indy late Monday night, 25 miners were already dead, 2 were injured and 4 were missing.

Many of us were glued to the TV, internet and newspapers all week as we prayed for the safety of the four missing miners. There is something about being a West Virginian that makes you feel like family. I honestly felt like those were my extended family members. I spent the whole week watching every press conference, reading every story and praying as much as I could, just hoping that those 4 miners had safely made it into the rescue chamber.

On Thursday, WVU basketball head coach, Bob Huggins, made a special trip to visit with the families. He brought along food and other special goodies.

On Friday, President Obama called for an intense investigation into what went wrong that fateful day.

As we all watched and prayed as rescue teams tried again and again to make it far enough into the mine to see if the missing had survived, we watched them be pulled back 4 times due to the conditions being unsafe for them to continue.

And then very early Saturday morning, Governor Joe Manchin, who had stayed in Montcoal every moment the entire week, broke the news that we all new in our minds but didn’t want to believe with our hearts. The 4 miners that were missing were killed in the explosion. This left 29 dead and 2 injured in one of the greatest mine disasters in recent West Virginia history.

What a story. It truly is something I will never forget. It also seems that it is something that one Associated Press reporter will never forget either. His story is below. Be sure to read this awesome piece.

Thank God, Mountaineers Are Always Free!

On the Ground: Humbled by hospitality in W.Va. mine country
Peter Prengaman, Associated Press
Saturday at 4:45pm
A Massey Energy coal silo towers over Marsh Fork Elementary on April 6, 2010, near the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in Naoma, W.Va. (AP Photo/Jeff Gentner) © 2010 AP

It would be embarrassing if it were not so humbling.

Hours after the West Virginia mine explosion Monday, scores of journalists from all over the country started arriving — in a very rural area with no communications or places to sleep closer than an hour’s drive away.

When the governor began giving press briefings at Marsh Fork Elementary School (this week happens to be spring break, so the children are out), journalists began getting comfortable at the site a few miles from the mine entrance, and we never left. By Tuesday, a couple dozen satellite trucks filled the parking lot, and classrooms with tiny chairs and paintings on the walls were turned into newsrooms and bedrooms.

And all of a sudden there was food — a lot of food. Pepperoni Pizza. Pulled pork and beans. Fried chicken, potatoes and green beans. Cookies. Crackers. Doughnuts of all stripes.

Prengaman

Usually I lose a few pounds while covering stories like this. The deadlines are too tight, the access to food often limited. This time, I’ll be going home a little rounder, and with a touched heart.

The food was cooked by residents and donated by businesses in this community. Some of it came by way of a local Red Cross, a Wal-Mart and a United Way, but even more was the home cooking of kind West Virginians who just wanted to take care of us.

Imagine, here we are, an aggressive and hard-charging bunch of journalists in the middle of this devastated community, and it’s THEY who are taking care of US!

The kindness hasn’t been lost on any of us. By Thursday, two plastic jars — “school collection” and “community collection” — were put out, and by Friday both had a few hundred dollars. I feel like we owe this school and these people so much more.

When I asked interim principal Shelly Prince how folks could be so giving at a time like this, she said that many felt it was soothing to help others. This situation made them feel helpless, and helping others was doing something. She also said it gave people a chance to show the world what West Virginians are “really like.”

“Often on TV, we are not portrayed in such a good manner. We often are portrayed as ignorant and backward,” she said. “But we are just ordinary people who live ordinary lives.”

I have to disagree. These people are extraordinary.

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