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SAGO, W.Va. -- In a place where feelings are held to the bursting point, they finally come out in the sort of narrative of public grief that runs along Route 20 south from Buckhannon to the spot where 12 coal miners died 20 days ago.
At the donut shop, one side of the marquee declares: "Healing is hard." On the other: "One day at a time."
Griffin Real Estate advertises the property of faith: "Our thoughts and prayers are with the miners." At McDonald's: "Pray for the families." The video store: "May God be their rest and comfort." A car wash: "Trust in God with all your heart. Do not depend on yourself." Passing Long John Silver's, where the sign says, "New Go Fish Sandwich, 99 cents," I'm confused to find a shop here advertising its actual wares.
The rituals of public grieving are a tricky matter. Dignity must be preserved in the face of candor. Sorrow must appear as real as it is, but not as cloying as it can seem. Farther along the road, the Go Mart has signed onto the grief of others with a message worthy of a cheap talk show: "God has 12 new angels." I have lived around coal miners most of my life. Most of them would prefer heaven, but none has suggested a job assignment.
Farther down Route 20, just short of Good Hope Tabernacle, where the sign quotes Psalms 29 on one side ("The Lord will give strength unto his people") and Psalm 46 on the other ("God is our refuge and our strength"), Sago Road intersects by a small hill surmounted by a white clapboard chapel the size of a play house.
This is the Randy Brown Chapel. Randy's photo hangs just inside the door -- a little boy who was born in 1957 and died in 1965. Three rows of tiny benches line the room and a King James Bible sits on a lectern. All we are told about Randy Brown is that he lived for eight years, died, and is remembered. That is how they do things here.
The Friday I drove the road was one of those sparkling, snowless lies winter gives off every once and again. The sun shone loudly and the absence of leaves made the forests around the mine look like bundled sticks. Sheri Carr was sitting alone on the steps outside Sago Baptist Church. Inside that small country church, the families of 13 missing coal miners hid from the world for two days. Near the stroke of midnight on the third day, they got word that 12 of the men were found alive. It was news delivered backward. One man, Randal McCloy, was alive -- barely -- and 12 were dead.
Sheri Carr had spent 52 of the 57 hours of that wretched tragedy at the church, 20 of them in her pajama bottoms. She directs works for the Upshur County ambulance service and rolled out of bed the morning of the explosion, got to the scene, and waited with the same desperate helplessness as the families.
Now, with the bruises on her soul beginning to purple, she'd come to the church to cry.
"It was just time I did this," she said. "I just needed to."
Her crew had tried to make it to the funerals of all the dead men. She'd gone to Tom Anderson's funeral, where the family put the note he wrote in his final hours inside the mine.
"He told his son Ti to grow up and be a good man and save the family -- something like that," she said. Save the family. That is how they are here.
Bouquets of flowers dotted the gravel parking lot below the church graveyard. As Ms. Carr had her cry, a pickup truck rumbled up. He explained that his brother-in-law died in the disaster. His daughter lost her keys somewhere around the church.
"My wife and me drove by the mine up there," he said. "The guards looked at me and yelled 'Just keep on moving, buddy.' I told them, 'I lost a brother-in-law in there. Don't go talking to me that way.' "
He went inside. When I found him, someone from the church was showing him a painting of a miner with a Bible. He drove off without his daughter's keys. They'll keep looking, they told him.
First Published January 22, 2006 12:00 am