MONTCOAL, W.Va. -- Their trip started at least 40 minutes from daylight.

The guys known as the "Old Man Crew" had finished their shift digging coal out of Upper Big Branch mine. They walked through its lattice of tunnels to a mantrip, an open-sided cart that runs back to the surface on rails.

There were nine of them in the cart, rolling through semi-darkness. "Head" was the crew boss, whom they ribbed about his giant, rectangular noggin. "Pee Wee" was the new grandfather. Benny was a recovering drinker who beat the bottle with the help of Jesus and a Bowflex machine.

They were smudge-faced miners with decades of experience doing jobs better suited for their sons and nephews. They had become friends in other coal mines, and some had worked together for more than 10 years. Now they worked here, at a high-earning Massey Energy mine.

All had lived the old story of West Virginia's Coal River Valley. A stint in the military for some, a job at an auto garage or a parts store for others. Then each in his own time accepted -- often embraced -- a life underground.

A few minutes after 3 p.m. Monday, West Virginia officials say, their cart was nearing a tunnel called 66 Crosscut.

Less than 10 minutes from daylight.

The story of the Old Man Crew began long before last week, when an explosion deep inside the mine killed 29 men. Four miners were missing, the subject of desperate search efforts, until their bodies were found late Friday night.

It was sometime around 1994, relatives said, when Benny Willingham and Carl Acord were assigned to the same crew in another mine. They liked each other and stuck together.

Willingham -- at 61, old even by their standards -- was sometimes teased as "Dad." He went into the mines 32 years ago after serving in the Air Force. A former wild man with a handlebar moustache, he found religion 19 years ago, his family said: A feeling struck him and he ran to the altar, holding a baby grandson.

"I guess the Holy Ghost just hit him," said his daughter, Michelle McKinney. Willingham channeled the energy he used to spend partying into church and his Bowflex and weightlifting equipment. "Strong as a mule," his son-in-law said.

Willingham was five weeks from retirement, close enough to have plans. He would take a Virgin Islands cruise with his wife and attend more of his grandson's baseball games.

Acord, a big man, was Pee Wee. He started in mining the day after he turned 18. He was 52 now, with two new grandsons, Chase and Cameron, under a year old. He had bought them little red wagons for Easter.

About 10 years ago, the crew recruited a new member from the latest class of "red hats," Massey trainees marked by red hardhats. Robert Clark, 41, a man handy enough to rebuild cars and build a grandfather clock, had come to the mines in his 30s.

"He was working as a mechanic at AAA Transmission up in Beckley, and he just looked up at me one day, says, 'Mom, this ain't no future,' " said Linda Clark. "I really didn't want him to go into the mines, but ... that's where the money is at, in West Virginia."

The Old Men liked his skills, she said. He liked their style.

"He said, 'Mom -- they're just a big cut-up,' " she said.

They were not going to let him get away without a nickname. Clark tried to cast off his childhood nickname of "Bubby" for the more professional-sounding "Rob." The crew called him "Dick Clark."

William Lynch, 59, had worked with the crew for more than a decade, and in mines since he was 23. He wanted to be a teacher, his daughter said, but the mines paid better. Sometimes, he tried to do both, teaching during the day and working the late-night "Hoot Owl" shift at the mine.

Steven Harrah left a job at an auto-parts store for the mines 10 years ago. Even though he was the boss of the crew, they called him "Head" for his gigantic cranium.

"They loved picking on their boss," said Jim Lucas, who worked alongside the men at a Massey mine called White Queen, before they shifted to Upper Big Branch a few months ago. "Believe it or not, until this happened, that ("Head") was the only name I knew him by."

The men were high artists of the mine-bathhouse prank: glue on the locker, hair dye in the shampoo, clothes stolen during a shower and left in the parking lot. Once, Clark rubbed his own clothes with ramps, wild onions with a powerful stench, so the rest of the crew would spend the day smelling him.

As other mine crews broke up and re-formed, this one stayed together: Willingham, Acord, Clark, Harrah, Lynch and the others.

"They might not have loved what they did, but they loved what they were doing" together, said Betty Harrah, Head's sister. "They might not have loved being under that ground, but they became a family underground."

Last Monday, the Old Man Crew was working the day shift.

Rescuers found the mantrip at 66 Crosscut, about 1,500 feet from daylight. Members of the Old Man Crew were lying on it.

Willingham, Harrah, Acord, Clark and Lynch, the heart of a crew that had been together for years, all died. So did two other men working with them: Deward Scott, 58; and Jason Atkins, 25.

Two of the men on the mantrip, longtime members of the Old Man Crew, survived. They were not identified by state officials.

Neither Massey Energy nor authorities have released a definitive account of what caused the blast, though high levels of the explosive gas methane were detected afterward.