The Dead Miners in Sago

“With all these roof falls and everything that has happened over the multiple months, not weeks, MONTHS, that this has happened, and they STILL send men in there?”

John Bennett, son of a Sago miner, confronting West Virginian Gov. Joe Manchin Today show, Jan. 4, 2005

The miners knew the Sago Mine was unsafe. And their families in the surrounding towns knew it too. The slap-on-the-wrist fines of the mine inspectors left an unmistakable paper trail for everyone else — serious violations jumped four times in 2005 over 2004.

I went into the coal mines in the early 1970s–as part of a whole generation of revolutionary youth taking communism to the working class. And over the following years there would be times–when the rock was breaking up, or water was pouring through the mine roof, or when gas built up–and you would lie there just dreading the next day. Not wanting to go in. But not wanting to leave your crew to face it all alone. Or you’d watch as someone you knew was carried out, broken up or dead, and taken to a waiting ambulance. While we wrestled with that, together and alone, there is constantly that hard pull of working class life–the bills that need to be paid, the way danger just becomes part of life, and with that, the fact that working people are treated like this is all our lives are worth.

The miners of the Sago mine knew there was danger–but still went back, day after day, because for most, there was nowhere else to go.

Then disaster struck on January 2.


Sago is a naturally gassy mine. Methane actively bubbles out of the coal itself with a hiss. If the ventilation is not right, the gas builds up in dangerous concentrations. And that’s what happened: Methane accumulated in a sealed-off section of the mine, until the stagnant air was as explosive as a tanker of gasoline.

As two crews of miners were entering the mine, a spark ignited the methane mixture, and a fireball ripped through the mine, blowing out the walls of cinder block, and sending debris flying. The burning methane and coal dust consumed the oxygen in the air, and the mine filled with heavy smoke, carbon dioxide and poisonous carbon monoxide.

The miners just entering the mine were able to stumble back outside. But the other crew was already deeper in the mine. The gas swept over one man, Terry Helms, killing him as he was returning from testing the coal faces. The remaining 12 men retreated to one of the mine workings. With coal on three sides, they stretched ventilation canvas over the fourth side, making a small room for themselves. And there, trapped without a source of breathable air, they waited for rescue.

Meanwhile their families outside were gathered in the local Baptist church and used in a media frenzy of born-again religiosity. This disaster was portrayed by both politicians and reporters as a act of divine will. West Virginia governor announced that miracles were needed. President Bush offered “God’s blessings and America’s prayers” for the trapped men (all while addressing an audience of supporters of Patriot Act police spying). When asked what outsiders could do, the company head said “Pray.”

When word spread that the twelve men had been found alive, the media portrayed it as the perfect ending to a religious parable. As families celebrated, the governor announced “Miracles do happen.” Television news reported over and over that “God has heard the prayers.”

In fact, things had not gone well. Each man carried a self-rescuer on his belt–that chemically changes carbon monoxide into breathable air for about an hour (and longer with shallow breathing). As that ran out, the miners had died, one by one, except for the youngest, Randy McCloy.

While the families celebrated outside, the owners of Sago mine, the International Coal Group (ICG) quickly learned that most of the miners had, in fact, not been found alive. In an unbelievably cruel move, they kept this a secret from the families for almost three long hours — while they worked out their corporate spin.

When ICG’s CEO Ben Hatfield finally arrived at the church to explain the “misinformation,” the families erupted in anger. One woman lunged at Hatfield and was dragged away by a swarm of state police. People bitterly cursed both god and the ICG coal operators.

The ventilation of mines can be maintained to prevent the buildup of dangerous gases. Coal seams too gassy for that can be abandoned so human lives are not needlessly risked. Miners can have radio homing beacons and tanks of emergency oxygen to survive carbon monoxide. And there can be trained emergency teams close at hand.

The fact that one miner was still clinging to life, 42 hours after the explosion, makes me wonder if more wouldn’t have lived if the rescue operations had started more quickly. The nearest federal rescue team was over 70 miles away, and it was 11 long hours before the first rescuers entered the mine–to begin their slow courageous work of searching this smoke-filled mine.

Freeing the people from such dangers and tragedies does not require some divine miracle. In fact promoting faith over reason is useless, and worse, when we all struggle to understand how such things happen.

The Business of Mining

The life and death of these miners was never in the hands of some non-existent god. This disaster was man-made. It was unnecessary and criminal. And such dangers face working people constantly across the planet–especially in China where the deaths in coal mines have been especially massive and horrific.

In this capitalist world, the necessary precautions are simply not considered profitable.

A 1995 federal study documented how the whole rescue system is out of date and under-funded. Nothing was done. In fact, these operations were even further cutback in the climate of “deregulation.”

At the Sago mine, the previous owners had faced bankruptcy and let the mine facilities deteriorate. The mine was bought by ICG — a corporate front for billionaire Wilbur Ross who ruthlessly squeezes new profit out of ruined companies. The exact details of how Sago mine has been run are not yet known, but everyone understands what someone like Ross does to an operation. His cutthroat tactics are the rule in the coalfields.

Any one who’s worked in a mine knows how routinely it’s all done. Foremen lie about gas readings. Safety devices are turned off and on, depending on who’s watching. Judges and state police enforce the power of the mine owners. The pressure of mine closures pushes miners to take greater risks. And so on, and so on.

I was in a small explosion once as our ripper heads cut into an old passageway. Not big enough to burn anyone, but enough to send flames flashing back, licking at us and then disappearing–leaving us gray-faced and deafened. By the time we had made it outside the mine management descended–to hush us up, to keep that part of the mine from shutting down. And those of us who refused, who testified in the hearing, who told what we had seen were simply targeted–not just targeted for eventual firing, but targetted for the most dangerous assignments in the meanwhile.

Mines that are profitable stay open, mines that prove expensive are simply closed. And a growing number of mines, like Sago, are kept non-union, where miners don’t even the most basic protections from retaliation.

That’s how it works. That’s how the coal gets run and the money gets made.

If the trapped miners now lie dead with a whole community shaken–well, for those who run all this, that is just a cost they are willing to accept. Because that next day, in mines across the coalfields, miners will wake up with no immediate choice but to go back to work. And because, Sago will reopen and young faces will show up to take place of the men that died.

Two days ago, with 12 miners dead and one still lost in a coma, I watched ICG’s Ben Hatfield coldly cut short a press conference by announcing, “We have to get back to running our business.”

MIKE ELY, a former coal miner, is currently a writer for Revolution
. He can be reached at: