Band of Brothers

updated 01/23/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/23/2006 AT 01:00 AM EST

In the hours before the Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago Mine, Debbie Groves awoke—as she always did—at 3 a.m. to put the coffee on. After setting a steaming cup by her husband Jerry's kitchen chair, she woke the man she'd known since third grade, then packed his lunch pail. On this morning, Debbie, 54, made an oven-roasted turkey sandwich with lettuce and cheese, adding two packs of crackers, an apple and a thermos of cold water. She also tucked in an extra slab of her homemade buttermilk pound cake for Randy McCloy, 26, one of Jerry's fellow bolters. “I always packed for Jerry and his friends,” Debbie says. “He loved all his fellow workers. They watched each others' backs.”

Like the tunnels and chambers of the mine in north-central West Virginia, the lives of the 12 good men who died in the explosion were inextricably linked. Some were to the mine born. Groves, 56, was a third-generation miner; Jesse Jones's grandfather died in a mine explosion. Others brought new generations with them, like Martin Toler Jr., 51, who worked the mine with his son and nephew, as well as his brother. Once these men hitched their fate to a crew, the fraternal bond extended to those with whom they worked and laughed—and with whom, they were well aware, they might die. Typically in their 50s and often married to their childhood sweethearts, they hunted and fished together, rode four-wheelers and swapped stories about their grandkids. “It wasn't like they were just friends or just someone working underground,” says Anna McCloy, 25, wife of Randy, the sole survivor. “They were actually family underneath there.”

And most were there because they wanted to be. While a few, like McCloy and Groves, had been looking for a career route out of the mines, many couldn't imagine life without their hard hats. Toler, who was a foreman for the majority of his 32 years underground, “loved the mines,” says his son Chris, 29, a former miner. “It's almost peaceful in there at times.” Jim Bennett, 61, ignored his family's pleas to quit the mine. “Mining was a profession to him” says John Darnell, his former son-in-law. Alva Martin Bennett, 51, who had worked in the mines since he was a teen, refused to listen even to his doctor after he developed black lung—once widespread among miners, now less common since work-site respirators became standard gear within the past 15 years. Instead of claiming government disability benefits, Bennett petitioned a court to be allowed back into the mines. “He'd rather work,” says his brother-in-law Jim Campbell.

Part of the appeal were the paycheck, health benefits and three weeks paid vacation that come with the job. In hardscrabble Upshur County (pop. 24,000), the seat of the mine, the average median household income of $26,973 is 36 percent below the national average. The 325 people who make their living from the mines do well by comparison; the average salary for Sago miners is $50,000—though younger miners like McCloy make much less. “It's the best-paying labor job in West Virginia,” says Chris Toler. But no miner takes the risks for granted. (Indeed, on Jan. 10, a miner died following a roof collapse in a Kentucky mine.) “They say a prayer every day before they go into the mines,” says Groves's sister Beckie Rogers, 38.

Last week it was hard to find anyone in the region whose life hadn't been touched by the Sago tragedy. At the Buckhannon Upshur Middle School, where black ribbons dotted bus grilles and the entrance, grief counselors circulated. “I'm in classes with three kids who lost someone,” says Kati Perkins, 12. “One lost her father, another his grandfather and another an uncle.”

Beyond the bereaved families, the 15 miners on another crew who narrowly escaped disaster on Jan. 2 were having a particularly hard time. Just 10 minutes before Ron Grall, 63, got to work that morning to begin his 10-hour shift, the first diesel vehicle that delivers miners to work sites had already departed. “It keeps going through my mind: Why were we so lucky?” he says. “It affected my wife so bad she's depressed, can't sleep. It's given me an empty feeling in my stomach.” In recent days Grall hasn't wanted to get out of bed. “My 17-year-old son must've hugged me 1,000 times since it happened,” he says. Grall's crew mate and friend of almost 25 years, Paul Avington, 58, says, “I'll never get it out of my mind. I worked with some of them for 10 or 15 years.”

Both men intend to return to Sago when it reopens and hope the mine's owner, International Coal Group, will find its 145 employees work in the meantime—as the company has vowed to do. “I like being underground,” Grall says. “It's where I belong.” But come the day he resumes his descent, Grall, a 40-year veteran of the mines, plans to do at least one thing differently. On Jan. 2, he neglected to kiss his wife goodbye. “I kiss her most of the time, but I didn't that day,” he says. “I will from now on.”

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