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Miner was prepared to die, family says

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'He was a very brave man'
  • Benny Willingham, 61, kept his affairs in order, relatives say
  • "If [God] takes me tomorrow, I've had a good life," he said, according to sister
  • Granddaughter mourns for miner who "taught me everything"
  • Mining communities are close as family, local residents say

(CNN) -- One of the men killed in Monday's coal mine explosion in West Virginia knew of the danger but didn't let it bother him, his family said Tuesday.

The blast at the Massey Energy Co. mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, killed at least 25 miners; four others are unaccounted for, officials say. The cause of the explosion had not been determined as rescuers worked Tuesday to bore ventilation holes into the Upper Big Branch Mine.

Benny Willingham, 61, a deacon in his church and the patriarch in his family, was among those killed, relatives told CNN's John Roberts.

"He was a good man. I know everyone thinks that about their loved ones, but Benny truly was a wonderful man," Willingham's sister Jean told CNN.

"He loved the Lord, and in church the other day, he thanked the Lord for saving his soul, and he thanked him for watching over him in the mines for over 30 years, and he said, 'If he takes me tomorrow, I've had a good life,' " she said.

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Her brother kept his affairs in order because of the constant risk of death, she said. Still, the accident shocked the family.

"It's scary. It's just really, really scary," Willingham's granddaughter Tiffany Ellis said. "My stepdad also does this, and this is just a wake-up call to me. I've seen it happen before, but I never imagined I'd be here today, telling my story about it."

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She said her grandfather stepped in to help raise her after her father walked out on the family years ago.

"I didn't have a dad; my grandfather filled them shoes for me," she said. "He spoiled me. Anything I wanted, his little girl got it.

"He taught me everything, from learning how to tie my shoes to driving, to learning the game about boys. He was always there to listen to my problems, whenever I had them."

The families of the victims are not limited to bloodlines, according to Willingham's relatives and other local residents.

"It's a good community -- tight," his daughter Michelle McKinney said. "We look after each other. We support each other."

"If you're from here, you're part of a coal mining family," Grace Lafferty of Harper told the Charleston Gazette newspaper. "You know a lot of people who work here. It takes your breath away, your heart drops and you have that empty feeling."

"Coal mining gets in your blood," Willingham's brother-in-law Bobby said. "The camaraderie is like a sports team. There's no love like the love among workers in coal mines."

After hearing news that miners may be trapped, former miner Randy Cox told the Register-Herald newspaper in Beckley, "I just got down on my knees and started praying that they were OK."

Cox, of Arnett, West Virginia, mined coal for 18 years and now is disabled, the newspaper reported.

"I never was in a situation like that, but I have seen roof falls," Cox said. "I'm praying for them, and I hope this turns out OK. May God be with them."

CNN's Jim Kavanagh contributed to this report.