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Vacation day saved Sago miner’s life

PHILIPPI — If not for the holiday weekend, 56-year-old Sago miner Tom Watson would have been in the Upshur County mine at the time of the explosion last Monday that claimed the lives of 12 of his colleagues.

He remembers the last words Terry Helms, the late fire boss, ever said to him. They were joking about his vacation.

“I saw him the Friday before Christmas,” Watson said. “He said, ‘Well, think of me when I’m in there at 4 o’clock in the morning.’”

On a normal weekend, Watson’s maintenance shift would have finished up at 7 a.m. Monday — too late to escape the early-morning explosion that resulted in the deaths of 12 miners, and possible brain damage to the lone surviving miner, 26-year-old Randal McCloy.

On a normal weekend, Watson said, “there would have been nine more people in that mine.”

Watson is a miner on “2 Left,” the insiders’ name for a particular section of the Sago mine. The name is now only too well known, as people across America watched live on cable news channels as rescuers battled for nearly two days to reach that point deep underground.

He had known some of the men since he started coal mining in 1978.

“Jackie Weaver — he was a mechanic — he started with me and Terry Helms when I came from Republic Steel,” the mill in Pennsylvania where Watson worked before it shut down and offered its workers jobs in a coal mine it owned in West Virginia.

“They asked me if I’d go back in” after the disaster, Watson said. “I said yes. It’s a job.”

But it is still unclear when the Sago Mine will reopen, and how much of it will be mined.

“They won’t mine No. 3 heading, I don’t believe,” Watson said, referring to the particular alcove — again, only too well known — where the miners tried vainly to barricade themselves away from the poison carbon monoxide gas that filled the mine after the explosion.

There, the miners scrawled notes to their families; 51-year-old mine foreman Martin Toler Jr. assured his family that “It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep. I love you.”

There, McCloy’s father speculated, his son’s fellow miners shared their oxygen with him, the youngest of the trapped miners, with two young children.

No. 3 is just one of nine headings, Watson said. They could mine around it and still get the coal, he said.

Ben Hatfield, president of International Coal Group, the mine’s owner, was to meet with the mine’s 145 employees Saturday morning to discuss when the mine could reopen. It is unclear how long the federal investigation of the tragedy will take. Work began Friday on ventilation holes to purge the mine of toxic gas, but, as of Saturday evening, investigators had not yet entered the mine.

Watson doesn’t talk about it, but his wife, Linda, coordinator of the county Family Resource Network, said she knows the signs of survivors’ guilt when she sees them.

‘Say their damn names’

“I really did think they were alive,” Watson recalled.

He and the other miners had called in as soon as they heard about the explosion, wanting to help. They were turned down in favor of volunteers who, they point out, were strangers to the miners.

So they stayed at Watson’s house and watched it on TV, just like everybody else. When TV reported about 8 p.m. that one miner’s body was found, alone, they knew it was Helms. It was the fire boss’ station, and Helms was the fire boss, and Watson spoke to him at that station every single day.

“He’d be sitting there with a cup of coffee,” Watson said. And they knew his family knew, too.

Shortly before midnight, when the cries of “Twelve alive!” began, Linda Watson said everyone began to relax.

Finally, they dozed off in front of the TVs. They awoke in the middle of the night to hear the impossible: 12 bodies.

They watched, stunned. Buck, another miner, suddenly rose to his feet. “Quit calling them ‘the bodies,’” he said. “Say their damn names.”

It might be difficult for people who aren’t coal miners to understand how close-knit were the men of Sago Mine. They had to be, Watson said. They had to keep each other safe.

“It might take 20 minutes to get out on the man-trip” during shift change, he said. “But it would take us 45 minutes by the time we talked to this one, that one. We’d say, ‘We had bad top over there,’ or ‘No. 3 heading or No. 4 is working, be careful over there.’

Still, there were roof falls. “That’s just how our top and roof are right now,” Watson said. One miner got hurt recently — “the 1 Left roof fell in on him,” he said. “He has three ribs and his pelvis broken. He can’t walk.

“The company built him a wheelchair ramp, split wood for him, checks on him all the time. That’s more than a lot I’ve worked for would do.”

Another miner got hurt before Thanksgiving. He’s still in a hospital outside the area, and Watson had just gotten back from visiting him Thursday.

“He’s learning to walk, but he can’t see anything but red,” he said. Doctors hadn’t established what was wrong with the man’s eyes. “We’ve stopped many times at the hospital to take him money,” he said.

“The guys will say, ‘Oh, you’re going?’ and they’ll chip in and put together a couple hundred bucks for his wife.

“You can’t get any better family than what we’ve got.”

‘I hope he forgets’

Watson was a union miner until 1985, serving as employee representative in the union.

“He was making less in 2000 than he was in 1980, because of the union,” Linda Watson said.

And miners’ wages aren’t as much as the $90,000 some news outlets are reporting, either, the Watsons said. “Maybe the superintendent makes $90,000,” Tom Watson said. According to the U.S. Census, the average monthly coal mining wage in Upshur County, where Sago Mine is located, works out to just under $40,000 per year.

“We’ve got a lot of inexperienced coal miners up there” at Sago, he said, because young people didn’t go into coal mining while it was on the decline during the past two decades, until coal prices began to rise recently and companies reopened some formerly unprofitable mines.

“All the union mines are gone now,” Watson said. He has worked at Sago since it reopened a few years ago.

ICG took over the mine last year.

“When they took over, everybody said, ‘That’s a bad coal mine,’” Watson said. “We had water and bad top. And mud up to your knees.”

Arches were installed in some areas to hold up the roof, he said. Watson said he was there when the old section of the mine, where the explosion is thought to have occurred, was sealed.

“There was no electrical or anything back in those seals,” he said. Lightning could have struck an old well and gone underground that way, he supposes, or a roof bolt could have struck a spark if there was a fall. But the miners themselves don’t know how the explosion happened. “It was just a freak thing,” he said.

“We did everything safe we could do.”

Linda Watson said she knows that many of the miners’ families won’t want them to go back into the Sago Mine. But, she said, “Buck and Tom say this is going to be the safest coal mine in the state ... At least for the next little bit.”

She said her heart goes out to Hatfield, ICG’s president, who has been widely criticized for allowing the families’ celebration to go on for two hours after he was told the miners were actually dead.

“I think it should have been handled just a little bit differently,” Tom Watson said. “But I think they learned on it, and they will next time.”

“We think there were too many people in those offices” at the command center, Linda Watson said. If only necessary personnel had been present, perhaps the wrong information might not have been leaked to the families, she said.

Also, seeing some volunteer talking on TV about being at the mine entrance when the miners’ bodies were brought out did not sit well with the miners’ friends.

“Even the families weren’t allowed to be there,” Linda Watson said. “The miners offered to help. Take them over there. Let them bring food and water to the rescuers.”

And then there are the mine safety aspects. “In my opinion, if a mine inspector has a brother who’s a superintendent at a mine, he shouldn’t be allowed to inspect that mine,” Tom Watson said. “That happens all the time.

“And every mine should have its own mine rescue team.”

Some people have said they hope sole survivor Randal McCloy is someday able to tell them what really happened in Sago Mine.

“I hope to hell he can’t,” Tom Watson said. “I hope he forgets.”

To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.


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