with Wendy Grossman
04/19/2010 at 01:00 AM EDT
The call came in the dead of night April 6. Robin Chapman, 48, turned to her 13-year-old son Michael and, gently as she could, told him his worst fears had come true. "Sweetheart," she said, "your daddy's in heaven."
It was a tragic end to an agonizing vigil that they and dozens of other families had kept since word of a 3 p.m. blast April 5 at the Upper Big Branch coal mine had convulsed the tiny Appalachian community of Montcoal, W. Va. At press time 25 miners were dead and four still missing in the nation's worst mining tragedy in a quarter century.
Facing the slimmest of odds, rescue workers raced to drill 1,100-ft. holes to release high concentrations of toxic carbon monoxide and methane gas (which is believed to have caused the blast) so they could enter the mine and search for survivors. Adding to the tragedy: Mine owner Massey Energy Co. had reportedly been fined more than $382,000 over the past year for safety violations. Massey CEO Don Blankenship said in a statement, "Our top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families."
And while the risks never dissuaded Kenny Chapman, 53, who logged more than 20 years there, says ex-wife Robin, Michael always worried about his dad, with whom he loved to work on cars, hunt deer and fish for trout. Choking back tears, he declared what he'll miss most: "Everything."