GLEN DANIEL, W.Va., April 7, 2010— -- Charlie Athey sobbed Tuesday night as he stood before friends and family at a prayer service in a small church here, barely able to express gratitude for making it out of the Upper Big Branch mine alive, minutes before the explosion that took at least 25 of his fellow miners.
"I just thank God for bringing me out," he said, before hunching over to cry. Around him, family and friends also shed tears -- tears of gratitude that their son, brother and friend was spared, and tears for others who weren't as fortunate.
But later, members of this tightly-knit West Virginia community said Athey's close call and the tragedy that has re-exposed the dangers of coal mining doesn't detract from the allure of a profession that is beloved here.
Athey, a 34 year-old father of four who has only donned a miner's helmet for two years, says he plans to return to work in a mine as soon as possible.
"It's the only thing I know how to do," he said. "I don't read and write."
Working in a mine is one of the few careers here that can yield a decent salary -- especially for young adults in this economically-struggling region who may lack even a high school diploma.
Nine out of 10 Appalachian men do not receive college degrees; some don't even finish high school. The average starting salary for a coal mine worker is $60,000.
"You can come right out of high school and make $70,000 a year," said Missy Perdue, 22, a stay-at-home mother whose husband, Jeff Perdue, Jr., 22, is a miner.
April Athey, 28, also says she appreciates her husband's salary, despite the risks of mining, so that she can stay at home and raise the couple's four kids, including one-year-old twins.
But miners and their families here say that as compelling as the money is pride in an industry in which generations of West Virginians have invested their blood, sweat and tears.
"It's in the blood," said Bob Payne, 63, a retired mine worker, who says he's disappointed his son had to quit the business after a few months because he became claustrophobic. Payne said coal mining builds "unity" and "brotherhood" among coworkers that makes working in the dark and in danger rewarding.
Career in Coal Seen as Addictive
Jeffrey Perdue, 45, a meat cutter and pastor of Steppingstone Community Church, is the only man in his family not to work in a mine. Perdue's father worked underground for 30 years, his brother for more than 20, and his eldest son, Jeff Jr., 22, has also undertaken the profession. All have survived.
The pride for the region's mining legacy is also apparent throughout Raleigh County, on flags and signs outside local businesses and on bumper stickers and decals on backs of pick-up trucks showing miners climbing underground with headlamps, plastered with slogans like "Covered in Coal."
And several miners compare their pride and passion for the job to an addiction.
"When you get coal dust in your lungs, you want to go back," said Joe Wimmer, 64, who retired from a local mine after 13 years. "I craved that dust like nicotine."
West Virginia has more coal miners than any other U.S. state. In 2006, there were 152,000 jobs in coal production in the state, according to the Energy Information Administration. More than 13,000 of those were underground.
That is where the danger is greatest. The death toll from Monday's blast was the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 people died in a fire at Emery Mining Corp.'s mine in Orangeville, Utah. If the four missing bring the total to 29, it would be the most to die in a U.S. coal mine since a 1970 explosion killed 38 at Finley Coal Co. in Hyden, Kentucky, the Associated press reported.
Meanwhile, crews were drilling early Wednesday to ventilate toxic gas from the Upper Big Branch mine, trying to make a section of it safe enough for rescuers to search for four missing miners as hope for their survival grew dim.