HARLAN COUNTY, KYA candlelight vigil Tuesday night outside the Drum Ridge mine, where eight coal miners are believed to be confined, left an estimated 55 residents trapped with no means of socially acceptable escape.
Attendees said they had originally hoped that the vigil would last "two or three hours at most." But as the gathering stretched into its fourth hour in freezing weather with no word of the miners' fate, their faith began to waver.
"I've been here a long time lending my emotional support, and I don't see any way out," Evarts resident Rebecca Sayles said. "I'm praying they find those men very, very soon."
With no food, a dwindling supply of hot coffee, the mine office's restrooms padlocked for the night, and the sole heat source the flickering flames of votive candles, hope was fading fast for a positive conclusion, or even just a conclusion, to the vigil.
"I can't believe it's only 10:30 p.m.," said South Wallins resident Pat Meacham, who said he had checked his watch nearly two dozen times since arriving. "The seconds, they feel like minutes, and the minutes, like hours. There's no end in sight."
Candlelight-vigil participants report that the presence of 28 relatives of the trapped miners is preventing an easy exit. One attendant noted that many family members were inadvertently blocking every route to the parking lot.
Many vigil participants reported a "suffocating" atmosphere, one worsened by the singing of church hymns and emotionally charged interactions with the miners' loved ones.
Though they were aware of the dangerous emotional conditions at vigils, many participants said they had ignored the warnings.
"I've been here four hours," said local realtor Margaret Clayton . "Every time I try to walk over to Mrs. Knauer to tell her goodnight, she has this 'the father of my children is trapped 350 feet underground' look on her face, and I just can't do it."
Attendees report that they have been "racking their brains," trying to think of a way to get out.
"The Stevens used the 'leaving to get more candles' tactic," local business owner Mark Peters said. "That was two hours ago, and I have faith that they were successful."
He added: "Right now, I'm praying for a miracle, such as an urgent phone call."
Near the five-hour mark, many attendees said they began to wonder about the rules, if any, of candlelight-vigil etiquette. Some were uncertain whether they could leave once news of the miners' fate was delivered, or if they would have to first wait for the emergence of a miner.
"I don't think I can leave until they find at least one of the miners," said gas station attendant Stuart Jenkins, who claimed that he was going to "pass out" if he didn't get to eat soon. "Maybe two, if the first one brought out is dead."
After the arrival of the WHAS-11 I-Team news van at approximately 11:30 p.m., the remaining vigil attendees reported that any hope for escape had been eliminated.
"I just want to go home," Harlan County resident Susan Rafferty said. "But now I'm cornered in every direction by the bereaved, and the whole state is watching."
Rescue crews, working feverishly to reach the trapped miners, asked to be allowed to continue their rescue operation without interruption.
"We understand that many in attendance are impatient," rescue worker Brian Turner said. "However, we can't stop every two minutes to answer questions about what kind of progress we're making, or how long we think it'll take to bring a drill from out of town, or what time the liquor store down the road closes."
When local pastor Michael Sloane arrived with 20 boxes of additional candles at approximately 12:20 a.m., adding untold hours to the vigil, one participant enjoyed a unique perspective. Ron Chernow, who had managed to escape from the candlelight vigil three hours earlier through a small opening in the emotional wreckage, spoke from his warm couch as he watched the live coverage on WHAS-11.
"My heart goes out to the victims of this awful situation," he said.