Hopes are fading for 2 buried miners

But small town bands together, anxious for news

April 20, 2007|By Timothy Wheeler | Timothy Wheeler,SUN REPORTER

BARTON -- Everyone seems to know everyone else -- or their family -- in this small mountain town nestled in the George's Creek Valley of Western Maryland. And since Tuesday, nearly everyone has been at least a little on edge waiting for news about two coal miners buried under thousands of tons of rock and dirt.

With each passing day, slender hopes are dwindling.

"I think we just feel bad for the families," said Jennifer Brandlen, who was tending bar yesterday at the American Legion Hall. "The longer we wait, the worse it is."

A television in the bar was tuned to Fox News, to supplement the reports about the search that trickled in with each customer.

Last evening, it appeared the grim search might be nearing an end. Federal mine safety officials said that workers digging through the rubble had struck metal, likely the back end of a backhoe one of the men was in when the 125- foot-high wall collapsed onto them.

Bob Cornett, acting district manager for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, reported that a large rock had slid over the exposed machinery and workers had to figure out how to remove the rock and other debris safely so it would not endanger the workers or damage the vehicle's cab, which they believe holds one miner.

"We have to take this cautiously," Cornett said.

Later last night, workers also uncovered the blade of a bulldozer, next to the backhoe, that was being used by the other miner, said Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for the federal mine agency.

But much work remained before officials could safely remove enough dirt to determine if the men were alive.

Cornett said he had given this news to the families who have been waiting inside the mining company's office nearby.

"We said a prayer. ... I imagine if I was in their shoes, I would have hope," he said. "You have to temper that, but you have to have hope."

Coal is a major employer still in this part of Western Maryland, with black pits pocking the hilltops and ridges surrounding the town. Many men here work or have worked in one of the mines, or hauled coal or have relatives who have.

"This is pretty much a coal mining community all up and down this area," said Mary Ann Leatherman, postmaster for Barton's tiny post office, where many residents come to pick up their mail and exchange news -- most of it less troublesome than the latest.

"It's usually a pretty quiet, nice little town," said Leatherman, who has been handling mail for this community of about 500 people for the last 11 years.

She said when the town's fire whistle blew Tuesday morning and she heard fire trucks racing to Barton from neighboring towns, "We knew it was something bad."

Not long afterward, a resident whose spouse is a fire volunteer came in to report the collapse of the high wall at Tri-Star Mining's Job No. 3 just outside town.

Since the search for the missing miners began, area businesses and organizations have brought a steady stream of food, hot coffee and cold drinks to the searchers and to the miners' families, who have kept vigil at the mine office.

Officials have not released the names of the two men. But everyone in town knows who they are.

Every hour or so yesterday, a truck or sport utility vehicle pulled up to the gate of the mine, and the driver would ask for news of the search.

Francis Mowbray stopped by late in the afternoon. He doesn't know either miner personally but said his son went to school with one of them.

"I hope they find them alive, but I don't see how that's possible," said Mowbray, 78, a former secretary of the Barton volunteer fire company.

Mowbray said he worked in a coal mine in his youth -- for a single day. His father, a lifelong miner, took him into a shallow underground mine. But Mowbray said the "shots" of explosives used to loosen the coal unnerved him.

Wednesday night brought a diversion for some here -- bingo night at the fire hall. But even then, Mowbray said, players inquired about the search.

As if the tension of the search wasn't enough, yesterday brought a bomb scare at Westmar High School in nearby Lonaconing. And residents already had had their fill of bad news this week.

On Monday, before the cave-in, a 3-year-old girl from Summit was killed when a large rock from a passing dump truck crashed through the windshield of the vehicle in which she was riding. A Lonaconing woman also was injured in an accident that killed a man from Cumberland.

"This has really been a tragic week all around," said Leatherman. "All you can do is pray they find them," she added. "Whatever the outcome is, I'm sure people will pull together."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

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