January 15, 2006 -- After the memorial service for the Sago Miners, one of the widows of a miner killed in the Jim Walters Explosion in Alabama in 2001 told me that if the recommendations after their investigation had been implemented, Sago would have never happened.
A few days later, four big named senators from Capitol Hill visited our small town of Buckhannon. They promised to enact legislation to prevent a "Sago" from ever happening again. My daughter and I helped.
April 29, 2010 -- Upper Big Branch -- One of those four senators spoke at the memorial service. He said there is a loophole in the new Miner Act passed after Sago that allowed the disaster to occur, and he is going to see that it is changed. I wondered if any of these families are promised a disaster like Upper Big Branch will never happen again.
December 8, 2010 -- The House of Representatives in Washington D.C. rejected a bill for changes in mine safety regulations after the Upper Big Branch explosion.
What I have learned in the five years after the Sago Mine Disaster is that it was preventable. I hate to be a believer in that saying, "The more things change, the more they stay the same." Will there be change for the Appalachian Coal Miner or will things stay basically the same, as when the mining industry began?
Realistically, not releasing them from blame, but there is only so much a legislator can do or a widow and child can do. As long as corporate greed is allowed persistence over miners' health and safety, there will be no change. Miners will continue to die. As long as corporate stockholders value profits, a piece of mining machinery or a vacation home over the lives of miners, there will be no change. Don Blankenship called the deaths of our 12 Sago miners, "statistically insignificant."
Blame must be shared by the individual miners as well. When you don't stand up, stick together with your co-workers and organize, you give the coal companies the power to intimidate you. And they certainly know how to "push your buttons" to do just that. The UMWA has a sticker, "United We're One. Divided We're Done."
What if you are trapped in the coal mines, behind a curtain, pounding on a roof bolt and your rescuer doesn't work? What if there are only two listening devices in the USA and they are not sent for your rescue? They are not even in working order. What if you realize you might not be trapped if your coworkers on the previous shift had spread more rock dust instead of pushing for more production? What if your family member is outside the mouth of the mine waiting for word on your fate and a reporter asks, "Does that coal miner have running water and electricity in his home?" What if...?
The population as a whole is to blame for not electing legislators who stand up for the working men and women in this country and hold these legislators accountable. While I recognize that coal companies need to make reasonable profits, there also needs to be a balance. Every single day coal miners go to work, they are playing "Russian Roulette" with their lives. The UMWA uses a saying, "We just come to work, we don't come to die."
I am in awe of the beautiful memorial that stands near the Sago Baptist Church as a lasting tribute to all the miners involved. I can't help thinking, through being tucked away in a less populated part of the county, the disaster is too easily forgotten. If it were displayed proudly at the Courthouse, it would be a constant reminder for all of us to work together to prevent future disasters and deaths in the coal mines.
Hamner, of Buckhannon, is the widow of George Junior Hamner, who died after the Sago Mine explosion on Jan. 2, 2006.