Families of Coal Mining Victims Mourn in Hours After Explosion That Killed 25

Benny Willingham worked as a miner for 30 years before he was killed.

April 06, 2010, 12:51 PM

April 6, 2010 — -- Many of the men who died in the depths of a West Virginia coal mine Monday often discussed with family their love of the job, despite the long hours and hazardous conditions.

Among the 25 victims of the blast were husbands, fathers and brothers, all of whom looked forward to the kind of work that others might find intolerable if not inconceivable.

Vietnam veteran Benny Willingham, 62, was five weeks away from retiring and embarking on his first cruise with his wife.

He had worked in the mining industry for more than 30 years when he was killed, and according to his sister had loved his job at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine until the day he died.

"He loved that coal mine," Jeanie Sanger, Willingham's sister, told ABC News. "People would say that he did the work for two or three men."

Sanger said Willingham had talked to her a few weeks ago about the possible dangers of working in the mine.

"He said if [the Lord] takes me tomorrow, I've had a good life," Sanger said. "He was a born again Christian and he loved the Lord."

Willingham had planned to retire May 13, the day before his 63rd birthday, Sanger said.

"He already had the cruise booked," Willingham's brother-in-law, Bobby Sanger, said.

Willingham was inside the mine when an underground explosion rocked the mountainside near Whitesville, W. Va., becoming the worst mine disaster in more than a quarter-century.

Community members have rallied in the wake of the disaster, leaning on each as they await word on the fate of missing miners.

Janice Florence, a resident in the Whitesville area, said that she knew many of the miners who were killed because they had been her students in Sunday school.

"It's a sad time right now but I do know one thing; that this community will pull together and they will help one another," she said.

Deward Scott, a miner for 21 years, was killed in the blast. His wife, Crissie Scott, said he loved his job, as with so many others.

"He was a Christian man who loved to help people," Scott told the Associated Press. "He's one of those people that once you met him, you wouldn't forget him."

Janice Quarles' husband Gary had just finished a ten and a half hour shift when he died.

"He had said to me a few times that he worried about rock falls, but never anything about an explosion," Quarles said. "He loved those coal mines, he did."

"Everyone protests against them, but he loved them," she said.

Gary Quarles, 33, had worked in the mine for nearly 15 years.

Son Will Miss Miner Dad

"He loved long-wall mining," Quarles said of the kind of underground coal mining her husband did. She said her husband had even been featured in a magazine dedicated to miners.

Quarles said she last saw her husband Sunday evening, when they spoke about their two children, Rabekka, 9, and Trevor, 11.

"The kids are getting ready to start baseball and softball and he was so excited," Quarles said.

Trevor said he would miss hanging out with this father.

"I'm going to miss fishing and hunting," Trevor said, in tears.

Also among the dead was 40-year-old Steve Harrah, who left behind a wife and 6-year-old son.

The accident also killed three relatives of one family: Timmy Davis of Eskdale and his two nephews, Josh Napper, 27, and Cory Davis, 20.

"You just can't describe him," said Kayla Raines, a friend of the family who is dating one of Davis' sons. "He was a good guy and would do anything for anyone. He loved his work."

Raines said Napper had only been "down there" for a few months.

"He hadn't been under there very long, but he loved it, they both did."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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