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Coal miner’s brother

FRENCH CREEK — By the time he powered up the mantrip, his older brother had already descended into the depths of the mine.

It was shortly after 6 a.m. on Jan. 2, and Owen Jones, section boss, waited until the last of the miners on “1-Left” crew piled into the rail car.

His brother, Jesse, had shoved off in another car with “2-Left” crew minutes before. Jones and his crew sat silent, heads down, in seats that faced one another.

The mantrip rolled under the hill.

At the landing, Jones stopped the car. There was a left turn. They were 260 feet underground, two miles from the portal. They had made this turn a hundred times before. Two-Left crew was working deeper in the mine.

A miner, Roger Perry, climbed out of the mantrip. He walked to the switch to turn the track. It was 6:30 a.m.

They never turned left.

Black eyes,bloody noses

As boys, the Jones brothers walked to the Pickens schoolhouse two miles down a dirt road.

In winter, Jesse, four years older than Owen, would blaze a trail through the snow for his brother and sister. They would watch Jesse and another brother, Lyndon — everyone called him “Bubba” — fight on the way to school. One Jones brother would arrive with a black eye, the other with a bloody nose, and the teachers would shake their heads.

In the classroom, warmed by the heat of a coal furnace, Jesse and Owen would stare out the window all day. They weren’t ones for books. They were always thinking about hunting in the woods, fishing down by Sugar Creek.

On the way home, uphill, they would throw rocks at each other. Jesse could throw the farthest. Owen marveled at his brother’s strength.

“His aim’s deadly,” he would warn his friends.

And at night, the brothers would sneak out of the house and hike down to Anderson Camp. There, they crawled under a boulder and slept under stars.

‘Get someone down here. There’s been an explosion’

The mine spat dust and gravel, sprayed hot air and God-knows-what into the miners’ faces. Hard-hats and lunch pails and bolt steel went flying. One man was blown out of the mantrip. Another man’s glasses were snatched from his face.

The wave of dust stung their eyes. The men threw up their arms, covering faces. They couldn’t see their own feet and hands.

“Go to the intake! Go to the intake!” the men shouted.

They took off, stumbling through the cavern in search of fresh air.

Owen Jones’ carbon monoxide detector was beeping, a red light flashing wildly. He strapped on his self-rescuer, a one-hour supply of oxygen, somehow found the mine phone and made a call to the surface.

“Get someone down here,” he said. “There’s been an explosion.”

The miners ran uphill on foot in search of fresh air. They saw lights coming toward them. The mine superintendent and three mine supervisors were hurtling down to the mine floor in a second mantrip. They jumped out, stopping where debris blocked the track.

Jones wouldn’t leave. His brother was behind the smoke.

The mine superintendent’s uncle was behind the smoke.

“Anybody inside! Anybody inside!” they shouted into the darkness. Nobody responded. Two-Left crew was 500 yards away.

Jones was still trying to find his brother. His crew stopped him. Their oxygen supply was running out. Owen might be able to make it to 2-Left crew, to Jesse, but he would never make it out.

“I gotta go back there,” Jones said.

“You can’t, Owen. You can’t,” they told him.

One-Left crew jumped into the second mantrip, backed away, and drove to the surface.

Jones ran back into the smoke.

Miracle baby

When Jesse was a baby on the Jones’ 60-acre farm in Pickens, one of the horses broke free and trampled him, stepped right on his face. Fourteen-hundred pounds.

But Jesse wasn’t hurt. Didn’t even have a scratch. His mother and father called it a miracle.

Jesse didn’t like to work on the farm. He would break a hoe handle deliberately. Anything to get out of digging up 300 pounds of potatoes, feeding the cattle, mowing hay.

Jesse and Owen would watch their father disappear into the woods every morning, a mile walk, to catch a ride to the mines. The family bought its first car in 1979. Things started to change.

The Jones brothers followed their father to the mines after they finished school. Jesse and Owen worked together for 17 years in the same mines.

‘This will haunt me for the rest of my life’

A week after the blast that killed Jesse Jones and 11 other miners at Sago, Owen Jones sat on a couch at his home in French Creek, watching news about the mine accident on CNN, trying to make sense of what happened under the hill.

“It was like watching your brother falling off a cliff and not being able to do anything about it,” Jones said, eyes filling with tears.

Jones never made it to his brother. There was too much dust, too little oxygen. He walked out of the mine alone at 10:35 a.m.

At the makeshift morgue, he identified his brother. He was told his brother had on his self-rescuer when they found his body. He was barricaded in the corner of the mine behind a curtain. There were no marks on his face. Not a scratch.

“I don’t know if I can go back in,” Jones said. “I don’t know. This will haunt me for the rest of my life.”

This story was based on interviews with Owen Jones, Sago miner Denver “Doc” Anderson, previous statements from mine company officials, and a preliminary report and maps released by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

To contact staff writer Eric Eyre, use e-mail or call 348-4869.


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