Coal Tattoo

The Sago Mine Disaster, Jan. 2, 2006

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Four years ago today, an explosion ripped through a small underground coal mine in Upshur County, W.Va. Soon, the nation’s eyes were focused on the Sago Mine, as a frantic rescue effort was waged to try to save 13 coal miners trapped deep underground.

Twelve of those miners never made it home to their families. They were (left to right and top to bottom, above): Tom Anderson, Terry Helms, Marty Bennett, Martin Toler, Marshall Winans, Junior Hamner, Jesse Jones, Jerry Groves, James Bennett, Jackie Weaver, Fred Ware, and David Lewis.

32d5958b-3629-462e-80ad-feb2e00a0b16pobjmini.jpgOf the 13 workers who did not escape immediately after the explosion inside a sealed area of the International Coal Group mine, only Randal McCloy (right) was alive by the time rescuers reached the crew more than 40 hours later.

It was the worst mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years, and brought a renewed focus to the nation’s mine safety efforts, which had suffered major budget and staffing cuts — along with an industry-friendly focus on “compliance assistance” — during the Bush administration.

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The Gazette’s collected coverage of Sago is still online here, and my follow-up series, Beyond Sago: Mine Safety in America, is here.

Investigation reports from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, special investigator Davitt McAteer, and the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training are also available.

To the families of those who died, these anniversaries bring yearly pain. That reality hit me when I read these comments from MSHA chief Joe Main about the Wilberg disaster:

I still think about Wilberg a lot. It crosses my mind for different reasons. But for the families and the co-workers, it never leaves. It’s a scar they’re left with for life.

And, it reminded me again of words that Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., spoke on the Senate floor after Sago:

I’ve seen it all before. First, the disaster, then the weeping and then the  outrage. But in a few weeks, when the outrage is gone, when the ink on the editorials is dry, everything returns to business as usual.

I had the privilege of getting to know some of the Sago families in the aftermath of their disaster. I’ll never forget them. No one who cares about coal miners and coal mining communities should.