A mining town faces tragedy - together

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

High levels of carbon monoxide

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."

A defense of fabric

Details of the accident were still emerging. One man was found dead by the explosion site, the other 12 had barricaded themselves behind a sheet of fabric to block out the carbon monoxide. The community, while eager for answers about why the explosion occurred and for investigations into the numerous safety violations the mine has reportedly occurred, also wants an explanation for the misinformation that raised people's hopes so high for a few hours. The White House and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration promised a full investigation.

Miners get double or triple the pay

Mining has long been a fixture in Upshur County. Along with timber and the gas and oil fields - all of which have had their boom periods - it's one of the few well-paying jobs in an area where Wal-Mart and the school district are among the employers. Starting pay can be $15 or $20 per hour - double or triple other available work.

"It's better pay, better retirement, better benefits," said Alton Wamsley Jr., whose father was part of the group of miners who got out when the explosion occurred. Mr. Wamsley, who currently makes hardwood floors, says he plans to join the mines this year, despite the disaster. "As long as there's been a Wamsley in West Virginia, there's been one that worked in the coal mines," he says.

Many miners have rationalized the hazards inherent in the job.

"Coal miners play down the danger to themselves and to family members," said Barry Michrina, professor of anthropology at Mesa State College and author of a 1993 book on Pennsylvania mining families. "They have this idea that danger is ubiquitous in the world, so coal mining is not unique. They say, 'Well, you could get killed crossing a street. Danger is everywhere. But, by being vigilant, you can protect yourself.' "

The work also builds a sense of camaraderie.

"Many of these men do see themselves as a breed apart," he says. "There's a tradition, a pride in continuing that sort of work. And many of the men like being underground, they don't get worried."

"It's a little like basketball players, or fishermen or construction workers," added Duane Lockard, professor emeritus at Princeton University and author of a 1998 book chronicling four generations of his West Virginia mining family. "There's a sense that we're all in this together."

The ranks of miners have thinned considerably as technology has improved.

Less than 4 percent of Upshur County's workforce is now actively engaged in mining, according to the Census Bureau.

In his interviews with coal families, Dr. Michrina also found that while confident of their husbands' experience and maturity in working safely in a mine, many women actively discouraged their sons from joining up, fearing they might not be as safety conscious.

"If it'd been a union mine this never would have happened," said Earl Casto, a former miner whose cousin, Junior Hamner, died in the accident. "This should make all coal miners working open their eyes." Mr. Casto said that his cousin complained frequently about the safety violations that occurred.

Though angry, Casto and his wife, Betty, were hesitant to point fingers Wednesday morning until they knew more. Instead, they headed to the Sago Baptist Church to offer a quiet prayer for all the miners and their families.

"This is going to be a sad community for a very long time," said Betty. "People will never forget this."

Mark Clayton contributed to this report.

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