After 44 Hours, Hope Showed Its Cruel Side

Anna Casto and Deborah Nuzum react to a  mistaken report that 12 of 13 miners were safe.
Anna Casto and Deborah Nuzum react to a mistaken report that 12 of 13 miners were safe.
By Tamara Jones and Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 5, 2006

SAGO, W.Va. -- The storm kicked up sometime before dawn Monday, sweeping across the scabbed mountains and bare winter woods with enough ferocity to jolt people awake in this Appalachian hamlet. County Commissioner Donnie Tenney felt his blue farmhouse rattle. Thunder, he thought. The phone roused him again. It was his sister. Someone from her prayer chain had told her there had been an explosion at the Sago Mine. Men were trapped.

Six miles away in Buckhannon, Upshur County's only incorporated town, tiny St. Joseph's Hospital prepared for multiple casualties. At the small Baptist church down the muddy road from the mine, anxious families slowly gathered. Nineteen men had entered the coal mine that morning. Only six had escaped.

"With each hour that passes, the likelihood of a successful outcome diminishes," reported Bennett K. Hatfield, president of International Coal Group Inc., which owns the mine. The tiny hollow was soon a jumble of network satellite trucks, emergency vehicles and the black cars of state officials.

For 44 heart-wrenching hours, an extraordinary drama would unfold before a watching nation, a tragedy made cruel not because hope was abandoned, but because it was embraced. Jubilation would evaporate into blind rage, prayers would become curses and uncertainty would swell into terrible accusation.

Twelve bodies would eventually be pulled from the Sago Mine.

But the toll was much greater than that.

The first day passed in a blur of uncertainty. Upshur County was once dominated by coal, but now the mines were scattered and few. It was still considered good work in a depressed region, and some of the miners drove an hour or more to work at Sago. It wasn't uncommon to find fathers and sons, uncles and brothers following one another into the deep tunnels.

Now, even after a new generation found work in the small businesses or big retail chains that have come to dominate the landscape, the community suddenly found itself pulled to the mines again. Quietly, efficiently, the rituals of comfort and solace were set in motion. At Sago Baptist Church, the Red Cross appeared with cots and blankets and headache medicine. Women arrived at the church with baked hams and potato salad and homemade cakes. Counselors and preachers circulated among the distraught family members.

Sago Mine had been cited for scores of safety violations, but officials from International Coal, which took ownership and began running the mine in November, said none posed the immediate threat to miners' lives that would have prompted mining regulators to close it down.

After the explosion, it took 24 hours for rescuers to create a road for drilling equipment, pinpoint the location and complete the hole that gave them their first glimpse into the area where they believed the miners were located.

The mine was shaped like a backward capital F, with the stem two miles long. Rescuers were guessing that the miners were in the farthest corner from the entrance; they established a fresh-air base half a mile from that spot. Teams with oxygen gear would communicate by hand-held radio to the fresh-air base, which in turn would use a crude phone to report to a command center above ground where Hatfield and other officials waited.

The mining officials trekked to the church and the media site for occasional briefings. The initial news was grim: Carbon monoxide levels in the mine far exceeded the level that would allow human survival. A microphone was lowered into the earth, and rescuers pounded away 260 feet above, hoping survivors might hear, but there were no sounds in response. "We are clearly in the situation where we need a miracle," Hatfield told reporters Tuesday afternoon, "but miracles happen."

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