Sago families describe losses, demand answers to disaster
BUCKHANNON — Peggy Cohen wants to know what happened to the notebook in which Sago Mine fireboss Fred Jamison wrote down what he saw when he inspected the mine early on the morning of Jan. 2.
Charlotte Weaver wants someone to explain why mine rescue teams were not sent into the mine for nearly 12 hours after an explosion ripped through the Upshur County mine.
Debbie Hamner can’t understand how lightning — which mine owner International Coal Group says caused the deadly blast — sent an electrical charge hundreds of feet underground.
“Was it really a coincidence that this accident happened in a mine that had so many problems complying with the mine safety laws?” Hamner asked.
On Tuesday, Hamner, Cohen, Weaver and the other families of Sago miners stepped behind a podium and demanded answers to why their husbands and fathers died in the worst coal mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.
One by one, family members took their turn as state and federal agencies began a public hearing into the cause of the disaster, which killed 12 miners and critically injured a thirteenth.
They recalled happy stories of their loved ones and shared the nightmare of their ongoing grief. Most of all, the families urged politicians and regulators to get to the bottom of the disaster and make sure that it never happens again.
“Was this a preventable explosion?” asked Cohen, the daughter of Sago miner Fred Ware Jr. “Did our dad have to die?”
Cohen said that she misses the daily phone calls with her father.
“Anytime I had a question or needed to talk, he was always there,” Cohen said. “Dad won’t even be able to see his five grandchildren grow up.”
John Groves, whose brother Jerry died at Sago, directed his comments to the panel of state legislators who had demanded seats on the hearing stage.
“We assure you politicians we are never going to let this rest,” Groves said. “This can be corrected, and it needs to be done immediately.”
Amber Helms fanned her face and struggled to hold back tears as she told the crowd about her father, Sago miner Terry Helms.
“My dad, in my eyes, was perfect,” she said. “He was a fantastic role model, a devoted father, a loving companion and a reliable friend.”
Jerry Groves’ daughter, Shelly Rose, said that her 7-year-old son, Zachary, has been hit particularly hard by his grandfather’s death.
“He still takes his grandfather’s watch to bed with him every night and keeps it on his pillow,” Rose said.
“I know that time will slowly heal wounds, but there’s a part of my heart that will never be filled,” Rose said. “That’s the part of my heart that was in the mine for 40 hours and that went on with him.”
Sago miner Marty Bennett’s son, Russell, said that families were angry that someone — it is not clear who made the decisions — delayed for hours in dispatching mine rescue teams underground.
“There were many things that went wrong,” Bennett said. “The rescue efforts, or should I say recovery efforts — the response time was unacceptable.”
Samantha Lewis said that her husband David Lewis walked out the door four months ago like it was any other day.
“He kissed me goodbye, and he said, ‘I’ll see you tonight,’” Lewis said.
“I could tell you all about my husband,” Lewis said. “He was a wonderful father and a wonderful husband. The key term is wonderful, because he is gone.
“We will not allow you to leave a stone unturned or to let the truth go unheard,” she said.
Christopher Toler, the son of miner Martin Toler Jr., was one of several family members who harshly criticized comments from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration that Sago victims may have incorrectly used their emergency oxygen devices.
“For anybody to question the training of the Two Left crew is unacceptable,” Toler said. “These men did what they were trained to do.
“They pounded on a bolt, and wasted precious air, and no one was up above listening for them ...,” he said.
“MSHA is the one that needs to be doing some training ... to learn how to get in there and get those men outside safely to their families.”
Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continued coverage of the Sago Mine disaster and mine safety is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.
To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.