MONTCOAL, W.Va. (BP)–As families waited to hear whether rescuers would be able to reach the four miners still missing after Monday’s explosion, a Southern Baptist on the scene said anxiety was mounting.
“We’re starting to feel the brunt of the stress of being here for going on two days now,” Charlie Minney, associational missionary for the Coalfields Association of Southern Baptists in Logan, W.Va., told Baptist Press.
“Family members don’t want to leave for fear they’ll miss out on news, so the stress level is starting to get a little more intense,” Minney said just after 11 a.m. Eastern time April 7. “They’re starting to grieve a little more openly. The room will be quiet and all of a sudden someone will break out in sobbing.”
Minney is among several area pastors onsite to counsel families after the worst U.S. mining accident in more than two decades killed 25 people April 5 and left four missing.
“We’re working with several different denominations, but onsite as we speak, we have nine Southern Baptist ministers and we have more coming in this afternoon,” Minney said.
Crews had drilled one hole and were working on two more so that highly combustible methane gas could be ventilated from the ground, allowing rescuers to reenter the mine in search of the four who may have been able to find refuge in an airtight safety chamber.
The Associated Press reported that crews also would perform a seismic test Wednesday, transmitting a sound underground to alert survivors that rescuers were coming.
Miners are trained to tap to signal they heard the sound, but officials said any such response is unlikely in this situation because the potential survivors are so deep inside the mountain. Officials said they were 90 percent sure of the miners’ location.
Minney estimated the pastors are ministering to between 150 and 250 people near the mine as they wait for word on their loved ones’ status.
“We’re just trying to sit with them, love on them, chat with them, fellowship with them, pray with them, talk with them about the good times, talk with them about what’s going on,” Minney said.
“We’ve had opportunity to share the Gospel on multiple occasions, just people coming and asking spiritual questions — everything from salvation to marriage. So we’ve been able to minister that way.”
Most of the opportunities for prayer, he said, come just after everyone has gathered for a briefing by officials.
“Most of the families will pray in a group. We’ll get a group together to pray. We try to do that after the meetings while we still have everybody together,” Minney said. “Most of the families aren’t wanting to pray individually because it almost seems like at that point if they do, they’ve given up. They don’t want to give up hope, and we can totally understand that.”
As rescuers prepared to enter the mine when the air was sufficiently cleared, Minney said he was attempting to pray with them.
“They’re going to send about 30 people in at a time, and we’re waiting to see if we can pray with those guys before they go in,” he said. “It’s a real tight-knit group, and civilians aren’t really allowed to have free rein around here like you would think.”
Minney had joined up with a chaplain with the West Virginia State Police who had helped grant access for the Southern Baptist ministers to meet with the families.
“He’s opened up some doors that we wouldn’t be able to have, allowing all of these guys to come on and off site and that sort of thing,” he said.
Southern Baptists, Minney said, are working with the governor’s office to determine what role they might play in memorial services in the coming days as well as in long-term grief counseling.
“We don’t have any Southern Baptist churches here in this area, so we’re working with some of the other Baptist churches right now to see how we can help them long-term to minister to their people who have lost loved ones,” he said, noting there are American Baptist, independent Baptist and Freewill Baptist churches near the mine.
Minney expected another wave of intense grief counseling to start once families are notified of the status of the four remaining miners. Only 11 bodies had been identified, he said, before rescuers had to leave the mine on Monday, and families are holding out hope that their loved ones are not among the unidentified bodies.
“The biggest thing that we need right now is prayer,” Minney said, adding that families are leery of the major news organizations that have swooped in to cover the story.
“The mining community is so tight. It’s a band of brothers that you have to earn your way in. They’re not real open to their business being aired out,” he said.
What would be most effective, Minney said, is for families to see that Southern Baptists are going to be there to care for them in the weeks to come, long after CNN and Fox have pulled out their news trucks.
Erin Roach is a staff writer for Baptist Press.