3:30 P.M. EST April 7, 2010
It is not knowing that is so hard―the waiting to learn if your husband or son or father or grandfather is among 25 who are known dead or among the four who are missing and may still be alive but trapped, deep within the Upper Big Branch coal mine in southern West Virginia.
The Revs. Susan and Steve Rector were on their way to the town of Montcoal late on the afternoon of Tuesday, April 6 – their second trip in 24 hours. On the first visit, they saw the waiting end for one family.
In the early hours that day, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin came to tell two families that the bodies of their loved ones had been identified. One woman had lost a son and two grandsons.
Hearing the news that “my babies are gone,” the mother and grandmother wailed, “'Help me, Jesus,’” Susan said. “That was very hard. It just broke our hearts as they tried to wrap their hearts around this knowledge that they were gone.”
Within an hour, the woman’s prayer focus changed. “She just started to pray for everybody else there.”
When they arrived at the mine about 1:30 on Tuesday morning, the Rectors saw families sitting in small groups, looking out for one another. Food was being provided, and the governor was there.
Steve Rector asked someone if he could give a hug. “Before we knew it, everyone was lined up and began to give each other hugs,” Susan said.
Susan had high praise for Manchin’s delivering the painful news to families. It was “just amazing,” she said. “He did as much pastoral care as any of us.”
Susan Rector serves Trinity United Methodist Church in Bluefield, and Steve Rector serves Bluewell United Methodist Church. They were among seven United Methodist pastors arriving at the scene, according to the Rev. Helen Oates of Beckley, superintendent of the West Virginia Annual (regional) Conference’s Southern District. The April 5 explosion is the worst U.S. mine disaster since 1984.
In a statement posted on the conference Web site, West Virginia Bishop Ernest Lyght called for prayer for the miners and families. He asked God to “surround us with a sense of calm in the midst of our distress. We ask that your holy presence might bring comfort to all the families touched by this incident.”
The Rev. Paul Stadelman, Oates’ husband and a retired pastor serving the Beaver and Blue Jay United Methodist churches, arrived late Monday night and “did a lot of listening to grief.” He met a “lot of folks, many with more than one involved in the disaster.”
Because the rescue workers who first entered the mine focused on looking for survivors rather than removing bodies, Stadelman saw families leave with the knowledge they had lost relatives “but couldn’t see their bodies. That produced a lot of feeling.”
As the Rectors made the hour-long drive along twisty mountain roads on Tuesday afternoon, they prepared for a second night “of just being present with the families,” Susan said, “just waiting and being able to be present with them and praying.”
Because methane levels must decrease before rescue workers check for survivors, she said, “It could be a long night.”
Search and recovery efforts were suspended early on April 6 when gases in the mine reached toxic levels. Mine Safety and Health Administration officials estimated it could be the following afternoon before the mine could be entered safely. Only then would the families know whether four remaining miners were safe in an area with oxygen tanks, water and food.
Ministry amid uncertainty is “even more vital,” Susan said, because the miners’ families are “not willing to give up hope. That is the most important thing: waiting and praying with them and not giving up hope.
“We hope our presence will say to them, there is always hope. That’s what Easter is. Christ is risen and, even in the midst of this, Christ is alive and with us.”
*Noble is editor of Interpreter magazine, the official ministry magazine of The United Methodist Church.
News media contact: Kathy Noble or Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 firstname.lastname@example.org