2006: Sago Mine Disaster
Twenty-nine coal miners went underground at International Coal Group’s Sago Mine near Buckhannon in Upshur County, West Virginia, on the morning of January 2, 2006. At 6:26 a.m., a methane ignition in a recently sealed area of the mine triggered an explosion that blew out the seals and propelled smoke, dust, debris and lethal carbon monoxide into the working sections of the mine. One miner was killed by the blast. Sixteen escaped. Twelve were unable to escape and retreated to await rescue behind a curtain at the face of the Two Left section. Mine rescuers found the trapped miners approximately 41 hours later. By that time all but one had succumbed from carbon monoxide asphyxiation.
Later that day, at 5 p.m. they found the body of Terry Helms. By midnight the news had spread. 12 of the miners were found alive. The families who had gathered at the local Baptist church rejoiced. Medical crews on the scene prepared to treat the miners. News outlets spread the news. Across the country those who had followed the tragedy gave their thanks, and breathed a sigh of relief that all had worked out well.
Unfortunately, the news had spread too soon, and the mining company wasn’t eager to share the updated reports.
Unfortunately, the news relayed to the surface was that all but one survived and the community rejoiced in momentary elation, only to have hopes dashed by the bitter reality shortly thereafter.
The tragedy put on spotlight on mine safety, leading the New York Times to write
Government investigators must waste no time in ascertaining the actual cause of the blast, for the Sago mine was already notorious for its long list of safety violations and fines.
The mine, with more than 270 safety citations in the last two years, is the latest example of how workers’ risks are balanced against company profits in an industry with pervasive political clout and patronage inroads in government regulatory agencies. Many of the Sago citations were serious enough to potentially set off accidental explosions and shaft collapses, and more than a dozen involved violations that mine operators knew about but failed to correct, according to government records.
Sadly, in the way mines are often run, the $24,000 in fines paid by the Sago managers last year constituted little more than the cost of doing busines.
But as the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, spoken on the Senate floor after Sago:
I’ve seen it all before. First, the disaster, then the weeping and then the outrage. But in a few weeks, when the outrage is gone, when the ink on the editorials is dry, everything returns to business as usual.