Memorial honors Sago miners
TALLMANSVILLE — Family members and local residents gathered in Upshur County on Sunday afternoon to dedicate a monument to the 12 coal miners who died in the Sago Mine disaster.
Gov. Joe Manchin joined several hundred people just outside the Sago Baptist Church where, eight months ago, the governor kept vigil with families who waited more than 40 hours for word on the miners trapped by an underground explosion.
In brief remarks, the governor said emotions rushed over him as he drove up the road along the Buckhannon River, in his first trip back to the disaster site since January.
“What more appropriate place for us to come back to do this memorial,” said Manchin, who lost an uncle in the 1968 Farmington mine disaster that claimed 78 lives.
At about 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 2, an explosion ripped through the small Sago Mine south of Buckhannon. One miner was killed by the blast itself. Twelve others took refuge behind a makeshift barricade, but 11 of them succumbed to carbon monoxide before rescuers reached them 41 hours later.
It was the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.
The memorial, designed by Jones Monument of Buckhannon, stands more than 6 feet tall and features etched photographs of each of the 12 miners who died. It also features the quote, “We’ll see you on the other side,” which was adapted from the note Sago miner Martin Toler Jr. left for his family.
Two concrete sidewalks lead up to the monument, each one surrounded by rock gardens and flowers. One of three benches has a photo of Sago survivor Randal McCloy Jr., along with a likeness of the nearby church. Two other benches list the names of 16 other miners who were working the morning of the explosion but managed to escape the mine.
At Sunday’s dedication, families — many wearing T-shirts with their lost miners’ names on them — sat on folding chairs under funeral home canopies, while speakers led prayers from a makeshift stage set up on top of an abandoned home’s foundation.
Dark, cloudy skies threatened for most of the 90-minute ceremony, but held off except for a brief and heavy shower while Manchin was speaking.
Ben Hatfield, president of mine owner International Coal Group, attended the ceremony with company executives and brothers Sam and Gene Kitts, as well as several other ICG officials.
Before reading the names of the miners, speaker Roger Foster said the three-hour celebration — which occurred after families were wrongly told that 12 trapped miners had been found alive — “gave a glimpse of what was happening on the other side,” when the miners met God.
“Folks, they didn’t cross the Buckhannon River,” Foster said, referring to promises that the miners were being brought alive across the stream from the mine site to the church that night. “But they did cross a river, and as Christians, we call it the River Jordan.”
When Foster read the names of the miners who got out alive, many of those men — including McCloy, the only miner to survive the 40-hour wait for rescuers — came to the front of the crowd to be recognized.
Delegate Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, led several lawmakers who attended in presenting the miners’ families with copies of a green state road sign designating the local road as the “Coal Miners’ Memorial Roadway.”
Manchin said the monument should be a reminder not only of the Sago miners, but of the need to continue to make coal mines and other workplaces safer.
“We have made changes,” the governor said. “The whole country has made changes. But there is much more to do.”
Before and after the ceremony, family members looked over the monument and took pictures of each other standing before it.
Debbie Hamner, the widow of Sago miner George Junior Hamner, said, “I think the monument is just beautiful. But what would be better is if my husband were alive today. We shouldn’t have to be here today.”
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.