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Why has it taken a disaster like Sago Mine, the death of 12 good men, the loss of wages, and the grief of this entire nation to see the need to address safety issues in the Appalachian coalfields? Coal is the backbone of this nation – that’s no secret. Coal is booming at this time but what about the coal miner? Little is known about the Appalachian coal miners. These miners have more at stake than a job here in these old mountains – buried underneath this black gold is his very soul. He will do whatever it takes to stay here on his little farm, crawl on his knees all day – work on his back in 2 foot coal so that he can hunt, fish and enjoy the cool mountain breeze.
Last Mantrip out of Sago Mine
By B. L. Dotson-Lewis
Summersville, W. Va.
January 4, 2006
I’m still reeling and stunned along with the rest of this nation by the events that took place this week at Sago No. 1 Mine in Upshur County, West Virginia.
On Tuesday, January 3, one day after the explosion in that mine, I traveled 84 miles to Tallmansville and Sago Mine because our coal-mining communities are closely connected. Members of my community are employed at that mine: Arnett Nicholas, Darrell Lucas, and Teddy Johnson, to name three.
Arnett’s mother told me it was due to a shift change during the Christmas holidays that these men were not working on the morning shift of January 2, 2006, when the explosion occurred. Arnett is off from work with a foot busted on the job in October.
Kim Toler of Canvas lost her uncle, Martin “Junior” Toler, of Sutton in this explosion. At least two individuals who came into my office today had relatives there. One was Jerry Groves, who died in the explosion. So, our mining communities are connected not only in heart and spirit but in reality as well. But it doesn’t matter whether employees of Sago # 1 Mine live here or in other coal-mining communities – they are all blood brothers. They share the dangers of their profession.
When I walked into the Sago Baptist Church yesterday afternoon, a strange feeling was in the air, a feeling hovering over the people much like what I have read and heard about in old times when wakes for the dead were held at people’s homes.
The church was filled to capacity and beyond with all ages, young children, teenagers, young and middle-aged adults and elderly people. All were family or friends of the 13 miners trapped 260 feet underground. I didn’t know at the time that it was death hovering over those family members waiting in that little church.
The pews were filled with people and long, narrow, brown tables used for church dinners and bazaars were set up in the back of the main sanctuary. One young, freckle-faced girl with curly, red hair who wore glasses with light-blue tinted frames, gave me a half smile as she laid her head on her folded arms. She was waiting. Four people escorted an elderly woman dressed in a pink church dress and coat down the aisle of the church, out the double doors and down the steps. Someone on each side held her arm, someone walked in front, and someone walked behind her. She was distraught, having a rough time. There was whispering, once in a while you would hear a soft laugh, they were talking about the miners, remembering better times with the men and waiting for their return.
People were milling in and out. A sign on the double doors read, “Keep Doors Closed”. Volunteers were carrying in blankets and food, making preparations for a long night of watching, waiting, and praying for the rescue of their loved ones. West Virginia State Police and Red Cross were acting as security to maintain privacy and keep the media out.
The small, white church is located across the road from the mine entrance. The church has a community/family room attached on the right, and a small porch has been built on the upper end of the front of the church. The church bell, used to ring for special joyous occasions or to announce church taking up, hangs on top in the steeple.
On the porch, three or four separate groups were huddled together; a few people were standing, leaning against the wall or bent over with both elbows on the railing surrounding the porch. A young couple sat in a corner with their metal fold-up chairs pointed toward each other in a way to keep others out. She was pretty with curly, thick black hair, twisted and pinned up on the nap of her neck. He wore a light gray ball cap. They both had hollowed, sad eyes.
In the yard, vehicles of various volunteer organizations took up most of the parking space, which was limited. A short distance back from one of the vans stood a group of people huddled together in the cold January drizzle under an umbrella. Rain poured down on everyone. The governor’s security force was out talking with people and trying to make sure no unauthorized personnel gained entrance to the church.
Sago No. 1 Mine is located three miles behind the high school up a narrow road. It had rained all night and all day, creating a muddy quagmire for rescue workers and family members traveling in and out of the site and the church on the dirt road. Many of the vehicles were parked deep in the mud. Heavy equipment trucks, emergency vehicles, and media were traveling at a steady pace up and down the road. I passed the church and drove on up and parked on the one lane muddy, dirt road. I walked down the hill through the mud and rain to reach the church.
The tragedy began between 6 and 6:30 a.m. on the day after New Year’s Day. The mine had sat idle during the holiday weekend. During 2005, West Virginia posted a glowing year in mining with only three fatalities. Then, on the first working day of 2006, an explosion caused the death of 12 miners and left behind a lone survivor—Randal McCloy, 26 years old, who lies in Ruby Memorial Hospital in critical condition suffering from a collapsed lung and severe dehydration. He is in a coma, and when he wakes up, he will live with the bittersweet knowledge that he is the only survivor. His wife, Anna, told that Randal kissed her each time before leaving for the mine and said to her, “God Bless You”. They are the parents of two children, a son 4 years old, and a daughter.
"Tell all I see them on the other side. It wasn't bad. Just went to sleep. I love you. Jr."
Note left by Sago Mine Junior Toler.