2 workers from Sago Mine have shot themselves
Two key figures in January’s disaster at the Sago Mine in Upshur County have taken their own lives in the last three weeks, police and other officials have confirmed.
Their deaths have family and friends of surviving Sago miners and mine rescuers — along with mine safety advocates — concerned about the emotional toll of the Jan. 2 mine tragedy.
“We need to recognize that this is a serious problem,” said Davitt McAteer, Gov. Joe Manchin’s special adviser on mine safety and the state’s top Sago investigator.
Mine dispatcher William Chisolm and John Nelson Boni, a fireboss, shot themselves in separate incidents, authorities said.
Chisolm, 47, of Belington, died on Aug. 29, and Boni, 63, of Volga, died Saturday evening.
Chisolm was the dispatcher on duty the morning of the explosion and Boni had discovered a buildup of methane five days earlier in the sealed part of the mine where the blast occurred.
“I am very concerned about people at the mine, and in the agencies,” McAteer said Monday. “These tragic events have a long-term impact on members of the community, be they co-workers, as these were, or just members of the greater community.
“There really is a need to provide services to families and fellow workers long after the media and the public have turned their attention elsewhere,” McAteer said.
At about 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 2, an explosion ripped through the Sago Mine south of Buckhannon. One miner, fireboss Terry Helms, was killed by the explosion itself.
Surrounded by smoke and toxic fumes, 12 other miners took shelter behind a makeshift barricade. Eleven of them succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning before rescuers reached them 41 hours later. Only Randal McCloy survived.
It was the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.
The American Psychiatric Association cautions that “survivors of trauma have reported a wide range of psychiatric problems, including depression, alcohol and drug abuse, lingering symptoms of fear and anxiety that make it hard to go to work or go to school, family stress, and marital conflicts.”
The group adds: “The effects of trauma are not limited to those affected directly by the events. Others may also suffer indirect effects from trauma — referred to as ‘vicarious’ or ‘secondary’ traumatization.
“Those at risk include spouses and loved ones of trauma victims, people who try to help victims, such as police or firemen, and health-care professionals who treat trauma victims, such as therapists and emergency room personnel, as well as journalists,” the group says.
Symptoms usually resolve over time, the group says. “However, if they persist or interfere with the person’s ability to function normally, professional help should be sought. Talk about suicide, excessive guilt or anxiety and substance abuse are warning signals that require immediate professional attention.”
In a prepared statement Monday, ICG spokesman Ira Gamm said, “International Coal Group was saddened to learn of the deaths of Bill Chisolm and John Boni. Our thoughts and prayers go out to each of their families.
“At the time of the Sago tragedy, ICG offered personal grief counseling to all Sago employees and their families,” Gamm said. “In light of these recent deaths, the company has reminded its workers that these counselors remain available and urged them to seek assistance if they feel the circumstances warrant.”
On Jan. 2, about 20 minutes before the blast, an alarm warned Chisolm of possible high levels of carbon monoxide underground.
Based on that alarm, Chisolm could have stopped miners — including the 2 Left crew that eventually perished — from going deeper into the mine, toward the area where the explosion would later occur.
Instead, Chisolm told investigators that he thought the alarm was a malfunction.
During a public hearing in early May, Ben Hatfield, president of mine owner International Coal Group, said Chisolm instructed an electrician to check out the alarm, but that there was no need for a mine evacuation. Hatfield said the dispatcher “did what he was supposed to do.”
Investigators also learned, however, that the Sago Mine’s carbon monoxide alarm system frequently malfunctioned, and that mine managers allowed it to be misused to page mine employees.
Five days before the disaster, John Nelson Boni found methane building up behind the sealed area where the explosion occurred.
Boni reported the problem to mine foreman Carl Crumrine, but Crumrine dismissed the gas as not being a problem.
Also during the Sago investigation, Boni told investigators that mine management had him sign a training form for a class he never attended.
Hatfield later said the incident was a “misunderstanding.” But Boni’s testimony led federal officials to launch a broader probe of training practices by Sago Mine management.
McAteer said Sago would not be the first time that survivors of major mining accidents claimed their own lives.
Most recently, a Pennsylvania surveyor killed himself about a year after he helped to rescue nine miners trapped in the flooded Quecreek Mine near Somerset, Pa., news articles said.
John Nelson Boni’s son, John Patrick Boni, also worked at the Sago Mine. No other information on Boni’s survivors was available Monday, a funeral home official said.
Chisolm is survived by his father, his wife, two sons and one brother.
Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s coverage of the Sago Mine disaster is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.
To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.