The Other Side of the Pittsburgh Seam

by Jonathan Barnes    /  October 31, 2009  / No comments

On January 2, 2006, an explosion at the mine in Sago, West Virginia trapped 13 miners underground for nearly two days. Randal McCloy was the only miner to emerge alive. Pittsburgh writer Jonathan Barnes covered the Sago Mine rescue for Reuters. Here is an essay he wrote about the experience. The original version appeared on his blog, Barnestormin.

“Tell all I see them on the other side.”
-Sago miner Martin Toler Jr., 51, in a farewell note

Thursday 1/5/06, about 9 p.m.

The first thing I noticed while traveling through the countryside outside Buckhannon to the mine was the smell of wood burning. Coupled with the chilly winter air and the cars parked all over the fields, a city-slick visitor might have made the mistake of thinking that the gathering was a jamboree in the hills, or maybe some huge family reunion. You could make the mistake, if not for the gnawing hum of emergency vehicles, the flashing police cars and the overhead lights flooding Sago Road.

I looked around for a campfire, and I realized that many of the old A-frame houses along Sago Road were belching smoke. I noticed the large, well-stocked wood sheds behind the homes. The smell of wood burning in city neighborhoods, while not rare, is never so pervasive as the smell of wood burning in this stretch of Upshur County coalfields.

At times, the gathering resembled a vigil for the trapped men. The unfolding story also marked this area as a place of dread, anticipation, and round-the-clock news.

TV journalists from Norway to New York queried mine officials in accented English. Outsiders of all shapes had descended on this otherwise humble backwater. The quiet countryside changed forever early on Monday morning, when an explosion at the mine rocked houses miles away.

* * *

Officials weren’t sure what caused the explosion, but they did not rule out a lightning strike. Hatfield said there was evidence of a blast but no indications of major damage to the mineshaft. In 2002, nine Pennsylvania coal miners were rescued in Somerset after a 77-hour ordeal in a flooded mine shaft 240 feet underground. And in 1968, an explosion at a mine in Farmington, West Virginia, caused 78 deaths.

Nine of the 13 trapped men at Sago had more than 30 years’ mining experience; the average for the group was 23 years.

“This is not a rookie crew underground,” said Eugene Kitts, a vice-president for International Coal Group, the mining company. “So we’re just trusting that their training and their mining instincts have kicked in immediately and they’ve taken every step possible to put themselves out of harm’s way.”

Hundreds of family and friends gathered at a nearby church where the Red Cross had set up operations. Strangely, the Sago Baptist Church was on a crossroad that intersects Sago Road, which is how you get up to Sago Mine. If you followed the road from the church across Sago Road, you’d end up at the mine entrance.

I wondered which came first, the mine or the church. I had a feeling it was the mine. The church was likely built after the mine, to minister to the needs of the people who worked there.

* * *
Through the first days of the rescue effort, International Coal Group officials held regular press briefings. They held them on Monday at 3 p.m., 5 p.m., 6 p.m., 8:30 p.m., 10:40 p.m., and around midnight. They continued to hold them regularly on Tuesday, at 1:30 a.m., 4:45 a.m., and on and on.

At a press conference at 10:40 p.m. Monday, International Coal Group Vice President Roger Nicholson said one of two rescue teams had progressed 4,800 feet into the mine, while the other team had not made it as far.

“We are going to change out the teams as they work” to keep the work going continuously, Nicholson said. Then he added a foreboding note: “The drilling hasn’t gone as well as we’d hoped.”

Though the drilling crews had arrived at the scene around 5 p.m., the drilling didn’t even begin until around 10:30 p.m., Nicholson said to the media, who were smashed together in a hot second-floor room near the mine’s coal tipple, a mile or so from the mine’s entrance road. He explained that miners carry a box with an oxygen mask and an hour’s supply of oxygen.

“We’ve had no contact with the miners since the incident this morning,” Nicholson said.

Kitts said the rescue crews were making good progress toward reaching the trapped men. He seemed cautiously optimistic about the fate of the miners. Somebody asked him about the training the miners had been given to make it through such a crisis.

“The training these miners have…They should get to a place where the air is good. That’s our hope, that they are in such an area,” Kitts said.

He noted that company officials believed the rescue crew at 4,800 feet was still a mile away from the trapped men. “We’re hopeful that the carbon monoxide detected this morning was a by-product of the explosion itself,” Kitts said. A bit later, he again qualified the slow progress that the rescuers were making: “They’re still proceeding by foot and working by hand.”

* * *
Around midnight, International Coal executives had a press briefing at the tipple. At that point, new media people still were coming in, and the second floor room by the tipple was getting hotter and more uncomfortable.

Nicholson told the media that a rescue crew was 7,800 feet into the mine. “At that level, we’re still seeing some good air quality readings and no obstructions,” he said. “We anticipate beginning to drill shortly.”

Some reporters questioned why the hole was not yet being drilled.
“You have to locate where the hole should be drilled, bulldoze out a level pad… The pad [initially] wasn’t large enough for the drill rig,” Kitts said.

Journalists asked once again whether rescuers had heard any communication from the miners, and how the trapped men would communicate if they could.

“If there is anything—the roof, a water line, the track… If they have access to that, they should be tapping,” Kitts said.

At the 4:45 a.m. press briefing on Tuesday, Kitts said the drilling had begun on the monitoring drill hole. “It’s going quite well and should be completed around 6 a.m.,” he said. “The drill will stop twenty feet above the mine roof…Mine rescue crews will be removed as a safety precaution. Then the drill will go into the mine, and at that point we’ll monitor the air quality” and put a camera into the mine.

Then it was time for the high-tech approach, as the company executives discussed the robot that was being inserted at 9,200 feet into the mine to investigate the situation. “The mine rescue teams made it 9,200 feet and they are stopping to evaluate” and allow the robot to do its work, Kitts said.

At that point, it had been nearly a day since the explosion at the mine.

“There have been no reports of [roof] falls. The teams coming out said the mine is in good shape,” Kitts said.

Ben Hatfield, president of International Coal Group, said rescuers and investigators were clearly seeing signs that combustion had occurred. “It appears to have been an explosion of some sort,” he said.

Hatfield wore a desperate look, and we all saw it, as did millions of people watching on TV. Somebody asked him if the miners would have tried to get out of the mine if they were alive.

If they barricaded themselves in, they wouldn’t try to make their own way out, Hatfield said, adding that miners are taught to construct a ventilation barrier and maintain a safe environment. It was obvious that company officials still thought the mine could be very hazardous to rescuers.

“As desperately as we want to get them to safety, we can’t put more people in danger in the process,” Hatfield said.
“Is there anything you’d like to tell the viewers at home?” a TV reporter asked Hatfield.

The company president looked straight into the camera, a sad and pleading look on his face, and said: “Pray.”

* * *

Around 6:30 Tuesday morning, Hatfield looked more forlorn than the last time we’d seen him. He told reporters that at 5:38 a.m., the drill had penetrated the mine shaft. The drill crews pounded on the drill and listened for a response, and there was no response. A camera probe of the mine found no signs of life.

To me, and I am an optimist, it seemed that carbon monoxide levels in the mine might be far too high for anyone to survive.

“We are very discouraged,” Hatfield said. “We remain determined to continue the search as long as there’s hope.”

Daybreak brought light to the desperate scene at the mine’s entrance, but it brought no new rays of hope to the family and friends of the miners. Their circles of lawn chairs were mostly put away. They huddled together and comforted each other, talking lowly, lest a reporter should eavesdrop.

A couple of hours later, at 8:39 a.m., three state police cars drove up the road to the mine’s entrance. A couple of minutes later, two more police cars rolled up the road to the mine. It might’ve just been a shift change for the cops, but given the dread and waiting that hung in the air, any small change seemed like it might be significant.

In addition to the media, many people had flocked to the scene after hearing of the trapped miners. J. Michael Poole, vice-president of Bridgeville-based Union Drilling, helped with the rescue at Quecreek Mine in 2002, and came to Sago to offer help if it was needed.

“At this time, the type of drilling equipment we have is not needed,” Poole said. The company, which is an oil and drill contractor, had equipment waiting at its Buckhannon location. The company used its high-pressure air compression equipment at Quecreek.

Chris Hamilton, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, also came to lend a hand. “West Virginia’s a small community. We just wanted to give whatever help we could,” he said.

I asked if there was much possibility that the miners had breathable air to sustain them long enough to be rescued.

“It’s absolutely possible that there are some areas with the right living conditions. It’s highly possible that they barricaded themselves [in],” Hamilton said. “This is a mining operation that goes horizontally into the seam, versus a vertical shaft… It is highly possible that there could be surface fractures that could be a source of fresh air.”

Hamilton added a note of caution about trying to read too much into the situation. “This is a unique situation. We’re not sure what we’re dealing with here,” he said. “This is a real unique experience. We’ve not had a similar situation in 15 years.”

Since Monday night when I arrived at the scene, West Virginia state troopers had been running interference on Sago Road, keeping out people who didn’t belong there. But somehow or another, all sorts of extraneous folks had made it there.

Well-intentioned folks like a tall older gentleman I’ll simply call The Preacher (because of his look, carriage, and ever-present smile), made it in to offer help. The Preacher facilitated contact between reporters and state officials and all sorts of other folks. He pointed out Gov. Joe Manchin’s car as it was passing slowly by me, and I was able to shout a couple questions and get a couple of answers.

Nick Paglia, a miner with rescue experience from Stewartsville, Ohio, had been watching the coverage of the rescue attempt since he’d heard about it on Monday. He said he couldn’t stop thinking about the trapped miners.

“I prayed all night. I asked the Lord to give me the strength. I prayed constantly,” Paglia said. He’d come to the mine to offer his help, which those in charge of the rescue effort declined.

He didn’t look too hopeful, but he sounded hopeful.

“God can work miracles. Let’s hope this is one of them,” Paglia said.

* * *

At a 10:40 a.m. press briefing on Tuesday, Hatfield said that the second 6-inch diameter hole had made it 396 feet down by 6:50 a.m. The third small probe hole that was being drilled had made it down 160 feet by 10:30 a.m., he said, noting that rescue teams had made it 10,200 feet into the mine.

“There are no material changes in the gas level at this point,” Hatfield said. “We believe that we were being overly conservative early on.”

The lost crew of men is located somewhere between the 11,000 and 13,000 feet range, he noted.

“It is the sole focus of everyone in the command center to get those men out safely… It continues to be our belief that the [gas detected in the mine shaft] is a remnant of the explosion… Morale is high. We all continue to push forward as hard as we can. The families are clinging to every hope of survival.”

A while later I noticed that one of the family members of the trapped miners was surrounded by a pack of reporters. When the reporters cleared out, I asked him for a quick interview. A few other reporters tagged along to take notes on my interview for their stories.

Nick Helms, 25, actually smiled and stood tall as he answered my questions, just as I’d seen him do with the other reporters. He was gracious and kind and understanding as he talked about his father, Terry Helms, 50, the fire boss of the trapped crew.

“My dad’s a smart guy, he can build anything,” said Nick, a resident of Myrtle Beach, S.C. “He wouldn’t let me get into mining. He didn’t want me to bust my ass, and not be able to sleep.”

I told him I was sorry I had to pester him with questions.

“I understand, it’s your job and I respect that. And I appreciate that you respect my dad and his job,” he said.

Terry Helms had been a miner for 34 years, said Nick. Their Preston County family was tight-knit. When he heard the news, Nick said, he sped up from South Carolina, making it to the mine in 11 hours.

I asked Nick if he was religious, if he was a man of faith. “I have faith, I believe,” he said quietly.

There was a whole lot of preying by reporters, and praying by the hopeful, going on down at the mine. To many, prayer seemed the only hope left.

Late in the afternoon, around dinner, Gov. Manchin gave an impromptu press briefing to reporters standing in the middle of the road leading to Sago Baptist Church.

“We’re praying for that miracle, but odds are pretty much against us,” Gov. Manchin said.

A short time later, around 5:30 or 6 p.m., I learned from a contact that he had just overheard two family members of miners talking about how rescuers had found a body. I asked him who said it. He motioned slyly toward two men just twenty feet away from us who still were talking lowly together. The men were on the family and friends side of the police tape that state troopers had slung across the grass about thirty yards shy of the church.

* * *

Friday, 1/6/06, 8:57 a.m.

I was moved by the farewell note written by Martin Toler, Jr., because it reminded me of my dad. Maybe it’s the stress, but more likely it’s due to the fact that I lost my dad from an accident nine years ago, after he fell and hit his head.

When I saw that Toler had written the phrase “on the other side” in his farewell note, it struck a chord. I was fairly sure that he was using a phrase from an old gospel song. I was wrong, because the song is a bluegrass standard that many country people and city folks know. It has the ring of an old gospel, which I believe is intended.

I looked up the phrase online, and I found the lyrics to the song “The Other Side of Life,” by Alan O’Bryant:

Praise God, I feel like singing
I’m on the other side of life now.

All my days of sorrow
and tears for my loved ones,
I wish I could tell them the door that I feel.
Though my body is weary,
my soul is uplifted
my sins are forgiven and my Jesus is real.

Praise God I feel like singing
I’m on the other side of life now.

Though my eyes are dim,
I see heaven clearly.
Though my voice grows feeble, I sing just the same.
In my heart there’s a song
as I see the gates open
I’ll sing forever my joyous refrain.

Praise God I feel like singing
I’m on the other side of life now.
Praise God I feel like singing
I’m on the other side of life now.

My father was an evangelical Christian—a Bible-reading, Bible-quoting former country boy from Michigan. He liked to sing at the top of his lungs in the living-room, with his stereo blasting religious songs, country songs, all kinds of songs. He was a Gideon, one of those guys who passes out the little New Testament Bibles on college campuses.
He was a first-class holy roller, and he’d taken our family to many different churches while we twelve kids were growing up. Some of the churches that we visited were little white country churches where they sang those lovely old gospel songs. “The Other Side of Life” was his kind of tune.

Dad was a believer, always sure of his final destination, which he knew was through the Pearly Gates. I’m sure his spirit was belting out a song as he was heading there.

* * *

I was relieved from my post covering the rescue attempt just a few hours before the wrong good news came out. When I left the Sago Mine and headed home around 8 p.m. Tuesday, things looked bad for the trapped men. Family members and friends of the men looked more and more hopeless, and the faces of the mining executives also were telling a sad story. Time was against the trapped miners, and it seemed that it would be a miracle if any of the men came out alive.

In the end, miraculously, one of them did come out alive.

By Tuesday night some reporters thought company officials believed the miners were dead, and that they were trying to rescue them so the families would feel the company had done everything it could. Do the damage control, lower the lawsuits, that sort of thing. I didn’t know, and I didn’t care to think about it anymore, because I was pretty sure that at least some of the miners were dead.

As I walked down muddy Sago Road to leave that sad place, I passed a camera crew by the side of the road that was getting ready to interview Nick Helms. The crews’ lights shined brightly in Nick’s face. He stood a little straighter, squared his shoulders, and smiled.

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