One year later
BUCKHANNON — In her pickup, over the visor, Lynda Anderson keeps a photograph. It’s famous now: Her husband Tom has smiled this same smile in a hundred newspapers since the Sago disaster took his life and 11 others one year ago.
Before she drove away from a recent meeting — yet another government meeting — about the disaster, Anderson reached up and pulled down the photograph. For just a moment, she forgot the conversation she had been having with a reporter. She was quiet, held by her husband’s familiar smile.
But just for a moment. Because what she and other families interviewed by the Sunday Gazette-Mail really want to talk about are serious, deep-seated problems with mine safety and the coal industry in general, problems Anderson says are what actually killed her husband.
Problems family members say are being brushed aside by state investigators’ theories about lightning igniting the explosion. Problems they have tried, and failed, to get government officials to pay attention to at all:
s Rescue provisions. Nobody alerted rescue crews for more than an hour and a half after the explosion. It took rescuers another two and a half hours to get there. Officials wouldn’t let them into the mine for another six and a half hours — 5:25 p.m., 11 hours after the explosion — saying it was too dangerous.
“Mr. Bennett’s letter,” Anderson said, referring to a farewell note written by miner Jim Bennett, “his last entry was at 4:25 that afternoon.”
Federal mine safety regulators now say coal companies must report accidents to emergency authorities within 15 minutes. Coal operators objected to the rule.
But rescue teams still have to travel to a disaster. Congress ordered companies to provide more rescue teams, but federal regulators don’t have to implement that until the end of next year.
In other countries, underground emergency shelters keep miners alive until rescuers can reach them. But Congress is waiting on a federal study before it will decide whether to force mines to buy them. It, too, isn’t due until the end of next year.
s Emergency air supplies. “I shared my rescuer with Jerry Groves, while Junior Toler, Jesse Jones and Tom Anderson sought help from others,” sole survivor Randal McCloy Jr. revealed in a letter to families about what happened inside the mine. “There were not enough rescuers to go around.”
The oxygen rescuer that failed her husband is something Lynda Anderson hopes will not be brushed aside. The same model is used in 60 percent of the nation’s underground coal mines.
Anderson gets reports on government tests that have been run on the devices since Sago, and since a May explosion at a Kentucky coal mine where three more miners suffocated.
“They’re finding many of them are not good,” she said. “I believe that’s a serious enough situation, I think it will be changed. I think.”
The Sago miners were sent underground with the minimum required emergency oxygen: one hour. Rules now require more emergency oxygen, but miners do not have it. Coal companies say they can’t get the additional air packs right now, because two suppliers are backordered. The Sunday Gazette-Mail reported last week that a third supplier has thousands of air packs sitting in a warehouse.
s Coal industry secrecy. Members of three miners’ families all spoke of secrecy in the coal industry, an issue that no politician seems willing to touch.
They stressed this problem particularly, though all asked that their names not be used. They said coal miners feel afraid to criticize any company for fear they will be blackballed and never get another mining job anywhere. They said inspector friends have told them they’ve gotten their wrists slapped by their bosses for doing their jobs, citing mines’ safety violations in certain instances.
Families said they have tried to explain this to lawmakers, but lawmakers won’t bring it up publicly either.
If Sago happened today, families say, their loved ones would probably still die. Not enough has changed.
Peggy Cohen, daughter of miner Fred Ware Jr., has met with Congress to plead for better mine safety. “The companies have to be forced, made to do this for the miners,” she told the Sunday Gazette-Mail.
That, some family members say, is one major reason they are so frustrated with the government and the coal companies.
“Coal is more important than a life,” said Pam Campbell, sister-in-law of miner Marty Bennett. “That’s the bottom line here.”
Debbie Hamner has spent much of the year since her husband, Junior’s, death quietly crusading for mine safety. She has traveled hundreds of miles to speak and listen to government panels.
With a reporter, she speaks calmly and plainly about the year’s maze of mine deaths and laws.
But sometimes a memory hits her. For a moment, she grows very quiet, pain on her face.
It is the memory of that night.
“I had been taken to the hospital,” she remembered. “I was told Junior was coming there.”
So she wasn’t at the Sago Baptist Church when the rest of the families heard. Twelve of the men were not alive, as they had been allowed to believe for hours, allowed to embrace and shout and weep for joy in front of a national TV audience.
No, officials finally revealed. The 12 men were dead.
“We had been told they were going to come eat with us,” Lynda Anderson remembered. “We had been told not to leave the church.”
“It felt like it should have been days,” said Sara Bailey, Hamner’s daughter. “When it was really only one day.”
That’s when the frustration started, family members say. When they were never briefed during the rescue effort. When they were allowed to believe the leaked “12 alive!” for hours.
And weeks later, when they found out, as Debbie Hamner told Congress: “[T]here is modern technology that could have saved my husband’s life, and the Sago Mine wasn’t equipped with it.”
Slowly, families began to rebuild their lives, with grief and reporters and investigations always in the background, plus the unrelated hardships of the year. Peggy Hyre, Tom Anderson’s sister-in-law, never mentions the family business that burned down in February, or the breast cancer she was diagnosed with in September, until a reporter asks about it.
“It’ll get better,” she says with a smile.
Near Christmas, the state decided to release its Sago investigation report.
The aftermath of that has been well publicized: Families’ frustration at being handed one copy per family of the thick report hours before a press conference, with little time to digest the findings, and Gov. Joe Manchin’s promise not to release the report to the public until families’ questions were answered at a later meeting, with families finding out minutes later that state officials had already posted the report on the Internet and it was all over the news.
Five days before Christmas, families drove to Buckhannon again. Some of them listened to a seven-hour presentation on the report, which includes photos of the underground room where their loved ones slowly suffocated.
Several of them left halfway through.
Pam Campbell stayed to the end. An out-of-state reporter asked her if some families seemed to be accepting the notion that the lightning strike and subsequent explosion were merely God’s will.
Tears briefly glimmered in her eyes. “I don’t believe it was God’s will to take these miners,” she said.
Another reporter asked Campbell what families do now.
“We go on every day of our life,” she replied. “We’re facing our first Christmas without our loved ones. We’re facing the New Year. We’re facing the anniversary of the explosion.
“We basically continue to fight for what we think needs to be done for the rest of these coal miners.”
To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.