A mining town faces tragedy - together
In this small community, tucked in the rolling hills of northern West Virginia, almost everyone is connected to each other - and, by extension, to the coal mines that stretch below. So, when residents learned early Wednesday that only one of 13 miners trapped underground had survived, they shared not only grief and anger - but also a sense of communal support.Skip to next paragraph
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The tragedy - the state's worst mining accident since 1968 - has also caused at least some people here to reconsider the boom that has begun to spread throughout coal country as energy prices have soared.
"This has kind of made up my mind," says Sam, a resident of nearby Buckhannon who preferred not to give his last name. He worked for about 18 years in mines before leaving to drive a delivery truck in 1991. "I've been offered a mining job every week or so. I was kind of thinking about going back, but now I don't think so," he says.
While danger has always been part of mining, the chain of events that unfolded here in Upshur County proved especially shocking for residents ever since word spread that an explosion early Monday had trapped 13 workers in an underground mine near Sago. The explosion, the cause of which is under investigation, created so much carbon monoxide that the mine had to be vented for nearly 12 hours before rescue workers could enter.
Despite reports that carbon monoxide levels were discouragingly high in the mine, hopes soared briefly shortly before midnight Tuesday when a report surfaced that 12 of the 13 had been found alive. Three hours later, the head of the International Coal Group, which operates the mine, announced that the initial report was wrong and that only one miner had been rescued. Randal McCloy, the youngest of the trapped miners, was taken to the hospital in critical condition.
Some residents were stunned.
"It's kind of knocked the wind out of us. You're just numb," said Randall Reger, a wastewater treatment salesman who stopped up by Sago Baptist Church the next morning to pay his respects. "Everyone knows somebody, a friend of this person, a nephew of that one. But give it a little bit of time. We're tough around here. This really hurts, but we'll grow from it."
Other residents, particularly family members of the miners who had kept the long overnight vigil, were angry.
"I came down from Elkins to see my granddaddy, and now I find out my granddaddy is dead," said Danielle Bennett, one of several family members who expressed outrage over the error.
It wasn't immediately clear how the error occurred, though it seemed to stem from a miscommunication down at the rescue operation and a cellphone call to a waiting family in the church that gave the news everyone was hoping for.
Some residents said the community's close ties would help see it through.
"Everybody looks out for everyone else around here," said Bobby Wolford, who hauls coal from the mines and lives in the tiny Sago community. "That's one good thing about it being so small."
Some residents were surprised when asked whether the tragedy would bring them closer. "We're already such a close-knit community because we're so small," said Heather Davis, a young, recently married fitness club worker who was helping out at the Sago Baptist Church Wednesday morning. "I'm not sure what the news now will do, but I'm anxious to see how it'll fall out."