10 years after Sago Mine Disaster, pain continues for mining families

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Peggy Cohen vividly recalls the early-morning phone call on Jan. 2, 2006.

Doesn’t her dad work at one of the mines in Upshur County? Had she heard about the big explosion at Sago?

Then there was the ride to the mine, thinking the whole way that this couldn’t be happening, or that maybe her father — continuous mine operator Fred Ware Jr. — hadn’t gone underground yet to start his shift.

Three days later, after a roller coaster ride of mine rescue efforts and a horrible miscommunication, there came word that her dad was among the 12 miners who died.

The Sago Mine Disaster happened 10 years ago, but Peggy Cohen says that for families like hers, for parents and wives and for siblings and children, the pain continues.

“Our family still struggles with his death,” Cohen said. “It will always stick with me.”

Life’s milestones and the years roll by — birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, graduations and weddings — and there’s always an empty seat at the table, someone missing from a family portrait. Someone who was taken away in a violent explosion deep underground, an incident that later becomes just another in the long line of mining disasters that have hit West Virginia’s coalfields.

“My life has not been the same since I lost my dad,” Cohen said. “There is a piece of my heart gone.”

Cohen recalls that morning. She and her husband were off work. It was a Monday, the third day of a long New Year’s weekend. They were planning to go visit her dad that night when he got off work. Fred Ware lived next to the Sago Baptist Church, just across from the mine where he worked.

Across the state, West Virginians were eagerly awaiting that evening, when the Mountaineers would play Georgia in the Sugar Bowl. In the small communities south of Buckhannon, thunderstorms were rolling in across the hills. Lightning struck near where International Coal Group, or ICG, operated its Sago Mine, a small underground operation that employed about 140 people.

Shortly before 6:30 a.m., methane ignited in a recently sealed area of the mine just beyond what was called the “Two Left” section, where Fred Ware worked. The explosion blew out the seals and filled the mouth of the section with smoke, debris, fumes and lethal levels of carbon monoxide gas.

“All of this stuff started blowing down on us — coal, soot, ash, mud,” Ronald Grall, a Sago miner who made it out alive, later told investigators. “It was just like volcano stuff, you know. It was just like being in a volcano.”

Twenty-nine miners were underground at the time. Sixteen of those miners managed to scramble out in the immediate aftermath of the blast. One of the other 13 was killed by the force of the explosion. Twelve other miners, believing they had no clear path out of the mine, hunkered down to wait to be rescued. As they were trained to do, the men used ventilation curtains for a makeshift shelter, to try to keep out deadly gases. They banged a sledgehammer on a roof bolt, hoping it would help show someone on the surface where they were deep underground.

But the rescue effort was delayed and, ultimately, mostly doomed. The nation’s mine rescue system had been troubled for years. Emergency communications systems at mines were outdated. Miners struggled to get complicated emergency breathing devices to work. Mining operators did not deploy special “rescue chambers” that were used widely in other countries.

By the time rescuers reached the 12 trapped Sago miners — 41 hours after the explosion — only one of them, Randal McCloy Jr., was still alive. The others had succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning. But a miscommunication among rescue crews and mine officials led to inaccurate reports that all 12 were alive. Celebrations rang out, along with the bells at Sago Baptist Church, where the families had huddled for two days, waiting and praying. The awful truth wasn’t delivered to the families for several hours, until another rescue team had gone back underground with stethoscopes, to confirm the miners were dead.

“They knew we were all over there happy and celebrating, but they waited so long to come and tell us,” Peggy Cohen remembered. “Then we see Ben Hatfield, the CEO [of ICG], walking in, surrounded by State Police, and I immediately looked at my husband and said, ‘Something’s not right.’”

Sixteen months later, when the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration completed its report on the disaster, agency inspectors blamed a lightning strike for igniting methane inside the sealed area at Sago. MSHA investigators issued a long list of citations, but concluded that none of them had technically contributed to the explosion or the disaster. The United Mine Workers union, in its own report, disputed the conclusion about lightning, and argued that broader problems led to the disaster.

Days before the Sago mine blew up, coal industry officials had been celebrating the end of a record year. Only 23 coal miners were killed on the job in 2005, the lowest number then on record.

For decades, coal-mine disasters were commonplace. Over and over, explosions and fires would kill dozens of miners — sometimes even hundreds — at a time. As recently as the early 1980s, the annual coal industry death toll, not including black lung disease, regularly was more than 100. Passage of the 1969 federal mine safety law, following the deaths of 78 miners at the Farmington Mine Disaster the year before, helped greatly reduce the deaths and the disasters.

Since 1993, the annual fatality count in the nation’s coalfields has remained below 50 and occasionally dropped to fewer than 20. Major coal-mining disasters also have become far more rare. Between 1976 and 1985, there were 10 coal-mine disasters. Over the next 10 years, there were three. And then, between 1996 and 2005, there was just one.

But in the last decade, there have been four other coal-mining disasters. After Sago: Five miners died in an explosion on May 20, 2006, at the Kentucky Darby Mine in Harlan County, Kentucky; nine miners and rescuers died in August 2007 at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Emery County, Utah; and then 29 workers died in April 2010 at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia.

During the Clinton administration, from 1993 to 2000, there was not a single coal-mining disaster, defined by MSHA as an incident that claims five or more worker lives. Early in the Bush administration, on Sept. 23, 2001, 13 miners died in an explosion at the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 Mine near Brookwood, Alabama.

The deaths brought calls for improvements in coal-mine safety, but Brookwood was soon forgotten, as the terrorist attacks two weeks earlier in New York and Washington, D.C., took over the national stage. The Bush administration’s response was for its first MSHA chief, longtime coal company official Dave Lauriski, to move quickly to drop several agency efforts for new or improved mine safety and health rules.

Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staffer and longtime mine safety attorney in Kentucky, blames Sago and the string of disasters that followed at least partly on the move by MSHA under Bush to focus on a more industry-friendly “compliance assistance” approach. The Bush approach also slashed MSHA’s budget, leaving the agency short on staff to the point that legally mandated inspections went undone.

“That attitude kind of infected the entire agency, and MSHA became kind of lackadaisical,” Oppegard said. “It grew out of complacency and out of a lack of focus by the agency on its real mission.”

Oppegard said the pain of mining families continues long after they lose loved ones in mining disasters or other industry deaths, and is made worse when it seems obvious that the deaths were caused by industry inattention to longstanding safety rules and agency inaction to enforce those rules.

“There is always a hole in their lives,” Oppegard said.

In a speech after Sago, the late-Sen. Robert C. Byrd had warned that calls for improved mine safety often follow immediately after a major disaster, only to fade when the public’s attention turns away.

“I have seen it all before,” Byrd said. “First, the disaster. Then the weeping. Then the outrage. And we are all too familiar with what comes next. After a few weeks, when the cameras are gone, when the ink on the editorials has dried, everything returns to business as usual. The health and the safety of America’s coal miners, the men and women upon whom the nation depends so much, is once again forgotten until the next disaster.”

In fact, many of the factors that turned Sago into a major mining disaster involved longstanding problems and issues that safety regulators and the industry had done little about or ignored altogether.

For example, regulators had for nearly four decades done nothing about language in the 1969 federal mine safety law that encouraged development and deployment of rescue chambers that could be used by miners to stay safe after an explosion or fire until rescue teams could reach them or until it was safe for them to simply walk out of the mine.

More recently, the Bush administration dismissed calls after the Jim Walter disaster — where lack of solid communications about conditions underground contributed to the large number of deaths — to require new text-messaging devices be used in the mines.

What’s more, federal regulators had in 1992 rewritten their rules for what constituted an “explosion proof” seal for old, mined-out areas of underground coal operations, despite longstanding questions about whether the engineering standards being used in that rewrite were sufficient. And if Sago was indeed caused by lightning, the possibility that such an event could occur was well-known to the mining community, but never really addressed by safety officials.

“At the Sago Mine, everything that could go wrong did go wrong,” said Davitt McAteer, a former MSHA chief and longtime mine safety advocate who led an independent investigation of the disaster.

Even before McAteer’s report, West Virginia lawmakers acted to make some improvements, requiring reforms in mine rescue and emergency response. On the national level, Congress didn’t act until Sago was followed by two deaths in the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine fire and five more deaths at the Kentucky Darby Disaster.

With the Mine Improvement and New Emergency Response, or MINER, Act of 2006, lawmakers required U.S. coal mines to provide miners with more breathable air, better emergency planning and communications, and with some sort of refuges to protect them while awaiting rescue. A legislative compromise to get the bill passed, though, left out some of the strongest reforms that had been sought by safety advocates.

Obama administration MSHA chief Joe Main, a former longtime UMW safety director, says that after some initial problems, the agency has done a good job of pushing the industry along toward implementing the requirements of the MINER Act. And he says that generally, mine rescue capabilities are much improved over where they were when Sago occurred.

But Main also says that much work remains to be done in that area. He points, for example, to continued concerns about exactly what kind of rescue chambers are best to use in underground mines and the continued need to develop a next-generation self-contained, self-rescuer, or SCSR, that will, among other things, allow miners to communicate with each other during a mine escape without having to take off their breathing masks.

“The MINER Act helped, but it didn’t take care of everything that we needed to take care of,” Main said in an interview. “I do think that escape is still a problem that we need to do a lot of work on.”

As part of his team’s investigation of Sago, McAteer convened a public hearing to take public testimony from certain mine officials, inspectors and others about what happened at the time.

Public hearings are allowed under the federal mine safety law. But they have rarely been used by MSHA, and McAteer’s model differed from what’s allowed under the law — where all questioning of all witnesses would be done in a public setting, like a trial in a courtroom. McAteer’s public hearing followed closed-door interviews with many Sago witnesses, and involved testimony only from certain individuals.

But among other things, the hearing at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon gave families of the miners who died the chance to question ICG officials in a public forum.

Peggy Cohen thought of the public hearing when she read earlier this year about the federal court trial of former Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship on charges related to events surrounding the Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster. In that trial, more than a dozen coal miners took the stand to publicly testify against Blankenship. Cohen said she wishes there had been federal charges and a trial in open court after Sago, but that families questioning the mine executives was a worthwhile substitute.

“I do think it was helpful,” Cohen said. “I think they should have to answer to us. It’s our family members and our tragic loss, and they should have to answer some of our questions. They had to look us in the eyes.”

While the Blankenship trial was occurring, lawmakers in Washington held their own hearing, calling in witnesses to review mine safety issues. Among those who testified in the Oct. 21 hearing was Bruce Watzman, vice president and safety lobbyist for the National Mining Association.

Watzman told lawmakers that while “notable progress has been made over the last two decades to keep miners safe, the industry has not reached its goal of zero fatalities and injuries — so more work needs to be done.” But, Watzman said, the answer isn’t more inspections or more enforcement or more regulations.

“Enforcement is an important safety tool, but its ability to improve performance is limited,” Watzman said. “Often, the time spent dealing with bureaucratic requirements steals precious time that could be spent eliminating a barrier to safe performance.”

Watzman said that some of MSHA’s recent initiatives — including “impact inspections” and a tougher “pattern of violations” rule for repeat violators — “will not get us to zero fatalities.” Watzman also criticized new MSHA rules to tighten the legal limits on the dust that causes black lung and to require special “proximity device” sensor equipment to prevent miners from being run over by fast-moving underground equipment.

In an email interview after the hearing, Watzman also expressed concerns that federal and state governments had rushed too quickly after Sago and the other 2006 disasters to require new emergency response and mine rescue technologies that the industry didn’t believe were really ready for widespread use.

“The discussions and deliberations were important and resulted in the development of new technologies that should better equip the industry in the event history repeats itself,” Watzman wrote. “Unfortunately, the rush to respond did not provide adequate time to investigate the readiness and utility of the technological solutions being advanced.”

Later, Watzman confirmed that the mining association continues to oppose changes in federal law to make willful violations of mine safety and health standards felonies, rather than misdemeanors. Mine safety advocates have renewed their calls for such changes in the wake of the verdict in the Blankenship case, which threatens Blankenship with only up to one year in prison. Watzman said the industry believes the penalties under current law “are sufficient and that no new authority is necessary.”

Oppegard said that such comments are the same thing miners have always heard from the coal industry.

“For decades we’ve had this same old tired, worn-out mantra about over regulation and overzealous inspectors,” Oppegard said.

“Methane can seep through an opening that is one one-thousandth of an inch wide,” Oppegard said. “That’s all you need. If you have an electrical box that is not air tight and you have one one-thousandth of an inch, that’s a violation. The industry would say that’s nitpicking, but there’s a reason for it. There’s such a small margin of error that can cause a disaster. That’s why mining is regulated the way it is.”

McAteer noted in an interview that the Upper Big Branch disaster came early in 2010, on the heels of what the mining industry praised as a record year, with 18 coal-mining fatalities, in 2009.

“To put one’s guard down is suicidal,” McAteer said. “It’s naive to suggest that because of legislative improvements or technical improvements we have eliminated the risk. We haven’t eliminated these big risks. Unfortunately, I feel like it could happen again tomorrow.”

Peggy Cohen’s younger son, Hunter, was 2 years old when his grandpa was killed.

Next month, he’ll turn 13. Not long ago, he started looking around on the Internet for information about the Sago Mine Disaster. Cohen recently gave him a copy of the investigation report, so he could read it for himself.

Hunter has missed growing up with his grandfather, who might have taught him about hunting and camping, how to bow hunt or clean a deer, Cohen says.

“As he’s gotten older, he will say, ‘If Papaw wasn’t in the mines, he would be here to show me these things,’” Cohen says.

Her older son, Marc, is hoping that one day soon he’ll get to drive his grandfather’s pickup truck, which the family is having rebuilt. The older brother, 22, tells stories to his younger sibling about his grandfather, trying to share the things he got to do with their grandfather before the mine disaster.

On Jan. 2, the family will do as it has every year for a decade now. They’ll put 12 roses a the Sago monument, and then put another one on Fred Ware’s grave.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-1702 or follow @kenwardjr on Twitter.

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