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Struggling to keep hope alive in coal country

NAOMA, W.Va. – There is a familiar refrain to some of the tragedies we cover. It's usually some take on "this kind of thing just doesn't happen around here." 

That's not one I've heard even once here, where the horrific accident has claimed the lives of more than two dozen miners. This is coal country. What is familiar here is the acceptance that the industry on which many rely for a decent wage is also one that remains one of the most dangerous in the country. 

Mining deaths have fallen dramatically over the years, but that is of little comfort to the affected families here. Nor, I imagine, is the assertion by federal officials that the explosion was preventable. 

VIDEO: West Va. Gov. Manchin: 'We'll not put our miners in danger'

It seems everyone here knows someone connected to the tragedy. The young woman working at the local gas station where I stopped went to high school with one of the miners killed. 

She declined to give me her name, but told me through tears that she was tired of hearing about "boys in their 20's cut down in the prime of their lives." She was angry, too, with the mining company whose officials "should walk the same mines and take the same risks as their employees."

The man who delivered the diesel fuel for our satellite trucks had a nephew killed inside the mine. He too did not want to give his name, but told me his sister's family was "tore up" with grief. 

Image: Pittsburgh News - April 06, 2010
SLIDESHOW: Deadly blast

There are no omnipresent "grief counselors" here – at least none with that designation. But there is a rich vein of faith, richer even than the coal seams running through these mountains. Pastors and other clergy have been comforting family members, holding vigils, and asking for the collective prayers of the community. 

According to a Red Cross employee who was with family members during the first night here, a pastor broke the uneasy silence that had settled on the room by reading Psalm 23, which reads in part "Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil."

Randal McCloy, the sole survivor of the 2006 Sago mine disaster in Sago, West Virginia has become something of a patron saint here. Officials here have been blunt when asked about the likelihood of anyone making it out of this mine alive.

But hope has not been extinguished in this valley, cross cut by the Coal River, where death casts a long shadow.