West Virginia Miners' Families Begin to Lose Hope as Rescue Effort Stalls

PHOTo Diane Sawyer visits West Virginia in regard to the recent mining accident.ABC News
ABC's Diane Sawyer speaks with residents of a West Virginia mining town following Monday's accident, which killed 25 miners and trapped 4 others underground.

Friends and families of the four missing West Virginia miners struggle to hold on today but hope begins to slip away with news that the rescue efforts must be delayed because of high levels of poisonous methane gas in the Upper Big Branch mine ..

"It was the most agonizing thing I've ever witnessed," said Sheri McGraw, director of communications for the American Red Cross Central West Virginia chapter, told ABC News' Diane Sawyer.

McGraw was with some of the hundreds of family members who gathered overnight, following Monday's deadly explosion in Montcoal, W. Va., waiting for news. Today, the families learned that the death count had risen to 25, with four miners still unaccounted for.

It's the worst mining disaster since 1984, when 27 were killed in the Wilberg Mine in Orangeville, Utah. "I've been through Katrina, tornadoes, hurricanes, but the concentration of misery and sadness in one room was almost too much to bear," McGraw said. "They've held out quite a bit of hope throughout this very long ordeal, and I think that's when hope fell apart."

"The women just breaking down, knowing that they're not going to see husbands again," said McGraw. "I heard one lady say, 'Who's going to take care of me now?' and of course her friends and family were there to say, 'We'll take care of you. We'll take care of you."

Pulling Together to Support Devastated Families

Away from the gathering of the miners' families, residents of the small towns surrounding the mine said they felt the pain because they're all part of the same extended family.

"It hurts," said Nancy Platt, who owns a small restaurant where people came to talk after hearing the news. "It's affected everybody that lives here, whether you had anybody underground or not."

Janice Florentz a resident of nearby Whitesville, W. Va., knew some of the miners who were underground during Monday's accident. Florentz taught them when they were young kids in her Sunday school class.

"It's just a sad time right here," Florentz said. "It's sad for these young wives and these children."

"But I do know one thing, that this community will pull together and they will help one another," Florentz said.

Miners Go Underground to Make a Better Life for their Families

Just down the road from the Upper Big Branch Mine, a group of miners and their families gathered on the stoop of the New Life Church in Whitesville. Still shocked by the accident, one young miner said that he tries not to worry about the dangers when he goes to work.

"Every coal miner knows that it could happen every day. We know it when we go underground, and we just hope it don't happen to us," he said.

In a region with poor education levels and even poorer job prospects, the miners face the dangers because it's the only chance some have to make a decent living. Nine out of 10 Appalachian men do not receive college degrees, and the mines offer them good paying jobs that aren't in fast-food kitchens or a Walmart.

Inside an Appalachian Mine

When Sawyer visited a nearby Appalachian mine in 2008, she met one of those men, Jeremy Hackworth. The 18-year-old had wanted to be engineer in the military but turned to the mines for work after his girlfriend got pregnant.

Hackworth's father and grandfather both worked in the mines, and his mother struggled with his decision to follow them into mineshaft.

"When these men go down under this ground, they don't know if they're going to come back out," said Lydia Hackworth in 2008. "There's not a day don't go by that I don't pray for my boys under the ground, but I know God's going to bring them back."

Sawyer saw firsthand the conditions underground. Booth Energy, the company that owns the mine Sawyer visited, has a good reputation for safety and caring about its men, but the work is still tough. Miners work anywhere from 9- to 12- hours every day in the dark tunnels, six days a week. Despite the real dangers that exist for miners, the money keeps them motivated. They're compensated with a starting salary of $60,000 a year, some of the highest wages and benefits in the region.

When Sawyer asked Hackworth how he liked his first day on the job, he said, "I love it."

How to Help

Donate to the American Red Cross Central West Virginia Chapter by visiting its Web site: https://cwv-redcross.org/donations.php?nav=donate

For information on how to donate to The Salvation Army's Maryland & West Virginia Division, click here. Donate to The Salvation Army's Maryland and West Virginia Division here:

ABC's Keturah Gray contributed to this report.