HAVING worked in three quite different West Virginia union coal mines as a young man in the 1940s, I am seething with anger over the murderous lack of enforcement of longstanding mine safety rules. It was always essential, even 60 years ago, to maintain a continuous flow of air across the work face, with a tightly controlled power ventilation system. These huge exhaust fans were a reassuring sight and sound throughout the coalfields.These fans were installed in a masonry wall blocking the entrance to one of two or three parallel tunnels. The unblocked shafts, or “drift-mouths,” served as entrance and exit for miners and coal. Any one of these tunnels could be used as an escape route. This produced a honeycomblike map; breakthrough passages had to be opened between the main shafts every 80 to 100 feet, so as to provide cross ventilation.The working pattern was more like stacked capital H’s than the F-shape that was described in the Sago Mine; this produced a “ladder” or trellis pattern as the mining progressed. All but the last rungs of the ladder were blocked with tightly constructed walls to prevent loss of air flow at the work sites. Usually three “faces” were being worked by a section crew of about 12 men.
Eleven of the Sago, W.Va., miners were not killed by the explosion. They were slowly poisoned and suffocated by the resultant combustion gases which would have been readily evacuated by an adequate ventilation system long before their emergency oxygen was depleted.Please trace this gross lack of concern for the lives of coal miners to the “bottom-line” financial vulture — and the enabling sweetheart federal administration that failed to enforce longstanding safety regulations by softening violation penalties to wet noodles. It was more profitable to pay the token fines than to operate a legally safe mine.The 1969 Mine Safety Act mandates that miners have an escape route and cross ventilation at the work face. The Sago Mine’s “backward capital F” tunnel design described in several news accounts is a death trap. There is no exhaust air shaft to remove deadly gases and smoke — AND no escape route for miners!Donald R. Maxey was born in Nellis, Boone County, W.Va., where he worked at mines in Nellis and Montcoal. He is a retired Korean War veteran and a retired physics teacher who currently lives in Mount Airy, Md.