Lessons unlearned: The Sago Mine tragedy

by Amy Kingsley

“You should have brought your camera,” my boyfriend said. “It’s beautiful out here.”

Those weren’t the words I was expecting to hear as we drove toward the Sago Mine, the site of one of the worst mining accidents in recent history. Reportorial curiosity caused me to bug Mark into taking me out there, to a place which stands half shielded by forest about 10 miles from his high school home.

We had traveled to Buckhannon, W.Va. for Thanksgiving and after two days of eating and watching football, decided it was time for a field trip. As it turns out, the Sago Mine operation stands some several miles down the road where Mark learned to drive. Before we saw the angular rust-pocked structure, we passed under an intimidating network of massive tubes.

The road shifted through the sides of coal-rich mountains, the edges of which plunged precipitously toward a whitewater river. Mark used to swim there, too, upstream from Sago.

We parked the car near the mine then walked along the railroad tracks to the river. The quiet surprised me, too. Between a series of rocky runs the river water gathered in a pool; scoop lights from an arm of the Sago operation hummed overhead.

Days ago the families of 12 miners spent their first Thanksgiving without the fathers, brothers and sons who perished on Jan. 2 when an explosion buried the group for several days. One, Randal McCloy Jr., emerged comatose but alive, and he’s still fighting his way back to full health.

I’ve been to sites of historic tragedy before. In Dallas, where I lived for nine months, entrepreneurs and academics have transformed the book depository and its environs into a shrine to the John Kennedy assassination. Locals hawk conspiracy maps and offer tours to the grassy knoll.

But here, in a place where regular people died pulling coal up from the ground, it’s silent. We climbed out onto some broad rocks in the middle of the river and I stared up at the peak of the Sago building.

On the way back we passed a one-room schoolhouse stuck on a plain near the mountainside. Its neighbors included beat-up trailers and custom raw-wood homes with picture windows. Then we approached the Sago Baptist Church, the most famous of a number of clapboard houses of worship in these parts. It’s much bigger than it looks on television, this building where the families and journalists huddled while waiting for news from the corporate bosses. The church sits nestled against the thick forest and trees tower over top of it. At the end of its looping driveway, church members erected a monument to the lost miners. Black granite bears each name and physical likeness, and the center features an embossed mining helmet over work boots.

A bouquet of fresh flowers sat at the base of the monument, and someone left name patches from two of the victims’ work shirts on the stone. It’s a handsome memorial, but it will never be a tourist destination.

Even as messages about global warming gain traction, the human cost of our energy addiction often goes unacknowledged. The Sago tragedy and other mining disasters have garnered banner headlines, but thousands of former miners die from black lung disease each year isolated in rural communities and without an iota of attention from CNN cameras.

Coal is plentiful in the West Virginia branch of the Appalachian Mountains. You can see seams of it in road-cut cliff walls. Bits of unrefined bituminous fall from the train cars that ferry the coal from Upshur County to power plants closer to home. I pocketed a piece from the tracks as a reminder; it was light, shiny and black.

The economy in this part of West Virginia still relies heavily on the coal underground. Some coal mining companies have reduced the human danger by blasting the tops off mountains and scraping out the coal. Of course that process exacts serious environmental damage that once again translates into human suffering. Waste from the coal industry filters into drinking water, causing cancer and other ailments.

And the fallout continues from the Sago tragedy as well. The newspapers in Charleston, W.Va. and Pittsburgh reported the suicides earlier this year of a fire boss and water pump inspector who escaped the mine unharmed.

Coal is as much a part of the Appalachian economy as it is the towering mountains. Subtracting it completely from either would result in a complete collapse of a state already marked by poverty.

But relying on coal for security and prosperity leaves West Virginians in a dead-end position not unlike the one thousands of miners face everyday when they march into the belly of those magnificent mountains.

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