SAGO — Driving through the small community of Sago, West Virginia today, you might never expect that this quiet neighborhood once played host to what was then the worst mining disaster in United States history.
At approximately 6:30 a.m. on January 2, 2006, an explosion occurred roughly 10,000 feet into the mine, shutting off the power and trapping 13 miners below ground. Research conducted since the accident suggests that the explosion may have been caused by a lightning strike just minutes before, which likely triggered a minor seismic event, but many other explanations have been proposed as well. Although a foreman, the mine superintendent and three other miners went in to attempt a rescue, they could not reach the trapped miners before excessive amounts of carbon monoxide made it too dangerous to proceed. In addition, repairs they had made to ventilation controls raised fears that increased fresh air to the interior of the mine may cause a second explosion.
Inside the mine, which quickly filled with plumes of thick smoke, several of the miners’ emergency oxygen packs were not functioning, so they hung a curtain to try and protect themselves, enclosing an area of about 35 feet. They attempted to signal their location to the surface by beating on mine bolts and plates; taking turns with a sledgehammer, they had to remove their oxygen packs to hammer as hard as they could. They never received a response from the surface.
Eventually, as the miners grew tired and the air became thicker, the miners stopped trying to signal. The air behind the curtain was growing worse; despite some of the miners attempting to find a way out, the fumes caused them to return quickly to relative safety. Despite their fears, the miners began to accept their fate. The group prayed together and wrote letters to their families. Slowly, dizziness and unconsciousness overtook them as they awaited rescue.
High levels of carbon monoxide and methane gas in the mine atmosphere made rescue a dangerous prospect, and 12 hours were required to pass before attempts to reach the miners could be made. Taking into account other potential dangers such as water seeps, unsafe roofing and concentrations of explosive gas, rescue teams bored into the earth at 1,000 feet per hour. On January 3, after more than nine hours of searching, the trapped miners were located about two miles inside the mine at approximately 280 feet below ground.
It wasn’t until the following day that 12 of the miners were found dead. The sole survivor, Randal L. McCloy, Jr., then 26 years old, was in critical condition. He was quickly transported to St. Joseph’s Hospital to be stabilized before being sent to a Level 1 trauma center at Ruby Memorial Hospital. McCloy suffered from carbon monoxide poisoning, a collapsed lung, brain hemorrhaging, edema, a muscle injury and faulty liver and heart functioning, but he would miraculously survive and mostly recover after months of physical therapy.
The tragedy received nationwide media coverage, and in the wake of the accident, there were several false reports that all the miners had made it out alive, which unfortunately was not the case. Private funerals for the 12 deceased miners were held from January 8-10, and a public memorial service was held on January 15 at West Virginia Wesleyan College, which was attended by more than 2,000 people, including then-Governor Joe Manchin, Senators Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, Representative Shelley Moore Capito and notable West Virginian author Homer Hickam.
The Sago Mine closed permanently one year later, and a memorial to the 12 miners has stood in front of Sago Baptist Church since August 2006. The tragedy that occurred 15 years ago is one that many in Upshur County will never forget and stands as a stark reminder of the dangers that miners face in their line of work every day.
The Record Delta extends condolences to the families of the 12 fallen miners:
We also wish to extend best wishes to the lone survivor and his family, Randal L. McCloy, Jr., 2ndLeft Parallel roof bolter.