SAGO — Coal poured out of the Sago Mine Wednesday for the first time since an explosion there claimed the lives of 12 men more than two months ago. From his camp across the Buckhannon River, 85-year-old Woody Aylestock watched the giant black pile grow.“Coal’s coming out of the mines now — I guess that means things are back to normal,” he said.On the surface, they are. Long gone are the TV network satellite trucks that camped out on people’s front yards in this tiny rural community, and the hordes of reporters who pressed Aylestock and others for information about the trapped men.Gone, too, are the signs that were on every business for miles around — first “Pray for our miners” and then, “Pray for our miners’ families.”
One such sign was still up, at the Lone Steer restaurant in Buckhannon, on the road to Sago.“You know, it’s funny,” said Mike Hyre, who runs the place, when asked about the sign. “The last person to ask me about that was when I was putting it up — but he was a reporter from a Scandinavian news network or something.”On the surface, barely a trace shows that West Virginia’s deadliest mine disaster in 40 years just happened here. But on a deeper level, life changed with the loss of 12 friends and neighbors. Only one man survived, Randal McCloy, who is still in a rehabilitation hospital with brain damage.“I went to church with Tom Anderson,” Hyre said. “And Jim Bennett was one of our regular customers — he used to come in every Sunday.”On Wednesday, only a couple of trucks from nearby TV stations came to document the miners’ first day back to work. They were parked at the little Sago Baptist Church, where the miners’ families had gathered to wait during the disaster.Aylestock said he was at the church on those nights. He said he didn’t mind answering those reporters’ questions. He is still glad to remember his neighbors, Fred Ware Jr. and Junior Hamner, who died in the mine.
“Junior, he used to come to my house all the time when he was a kid,” he said.Now, there’s a tipple and a coal-cleaning plant where the Aylestock farm used to be.“I sold all 165 acres to the coal company,” Aylestock said. “All except five.” That’s where his camp is now, and the summer camps of two of his 14 brothers and sisters.“They own all the mountains up in here,” he said. “The coal company owns it all.”
Adam is a neighbor of Aylestock’s, his family home occupying a skinny strip of land with the coal train just off the back steps and the haul road, ceaselessly rumbling with coal trucks, off the front.
He didn’t want to give his last name, he said, because he is an electrician who does contract work for Sago and other coal mines.“It shook this place pretty hard,” he said of the disaster.“Junior Hamner — he was a neighbor of ours. You have to drive through his farm to get to mine. He made some of the best homemade wine around here — grape, rhubarb, strawberry.“Junior Ware lived right here, too. We used to go deer hunting every year.”Adam, now 24, was 17 when he helped run the electrical line to the new Sago Mine. It was the same year cancer took his father, who used to go bear hunting with him all over these hills. He remembers life before the mine.“That used to be a big field over there,” he said, looking across the rushing Buckhannon toward the growing pile of coal. And then there are the constant coal trucks. “I took my TV apart because it wasn’t working, and it was full of coal dust.”
He is glad to see the mine working again.“A large percentage of the electricity that runs this nation comes from coal mined in West Virginia. The cinders you put on the road come from the ash from burning coal. It’s vital to maintaining life, really.”In Buckhannon, Hyre said people are still raising money for the miners’ families.“A guy left 30 CDs here. He’d written a song about the miners, and I think he was selling them for $5 and giving $1 to the families.“We sold them within a week.”As for his sign, Hyre said, “We’ll have to change it sometime. Everybody else has already taken theirs down ...”But “Pray for our mining families” may soon apply to him. His 20-year-old cousin just applied for a job at the Sago Mine.“He’s gung ho,” Hyre said. “He told me he was going up there to check on his application today.”To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.