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Last Updated: Thursday, 5 January 2006, 05:17 GMT
Joy, then sadness as grief hits home
By James Coomarasamy
BBC News, Sago, West Virginia

A vigil outside Sago Baptist Church
A vigil was held hours after news of the deaths was finally confirmed
The mining machinery had been silent for more than a day and a half by the time the church bells rang out in the small Sago Baptist Church.

The place of prayer had, over the previous two days, become a place of refuge for the families and friends of the 13 trapped miners.

It was a joyous sound, a peal which could only be associated with a happy moment, such as a wedding or a birth, or a miraculous rescue.

And the miracle was what everyone in this small community thought had happened on Tuesday night.

They had been told repeatedly by officials from the head of the international coal group, the company which owns the mine, to the governor of West Virginia, that only a miracle could save the miners.

So the look of joy on their faces was mixed with a sense of religious wonder.

Mood swings

Only minutes beforehand some of them had been holding a prayer vigil for the men trapped underground, but now grown men were hugging each other in disbelief after an initially whispered phrase - "They're alive" - rippled through the crowd.

How would you feel if someone told you your father was alive and then came back an hour later and told you he had died?
Ann Meredith

It grew into a tidal wave of celebration.

Just prior to the news of the apparent rescue the mood had been decidedly pessimistic.

Although we in the media had been kept away from the church itself, the small groups of people leaving and entering the building holding hands were, to a person, in despair.

They barely looked up as they passed the makeshift Salvation Army van where cups of coffee and snacks were being handed out to rescue workers and journalists, huddled around small camp fires for warmth.

At one point there were even reports of incidents between prying photographers and the people inside the church, angry that their privacy had been invaded at a time when the fate of their family members had become such public property.

Grief and anger

But that anger was as nothing compared to the reaction to news of the terrible communications mistake.

Dan and Ann Meredith, relatives of dead miner
Dan and Ann Meredith held out hope but received no good news
How ironic that the real fate of the miners - all but one of them died - should also be relayed to them in the church where just three hours earlier tidings of great joy had been passed throughout the community.

It was a truly heart-wrenching sight to witness.

Just half an hour earlier I had been listening to Ann and Dan Meredith talking about their relief that Ann's 61-year-old father Jim Bennett had been saved. He could now retire in peace.

But now their grief and anger was mixed with a cry of frustration to the assembled reporters.

"Can you imagine how you would feel if someone told you your father was alive and then came back an hour later and told you he had died?" said Ann.

Behind her, illuminated by the dying camp fire, were one or two other people who knew.


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