Down in the Sago Mine
Randy McCloy, the sole survivor of the Sago Mine accident, attends the signing ceremony of the Miner Act at the White House on June 15, 2006 in Washington, DC.
Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images

Randy McCloy, lean, 6-foot-1, is racing through the black puzzle of the Sago Mine. Nine parallel tunnels, intersected every 100 feet by connecting tunnels, form a grid extending nearly three miles under a hilly forest of West Virginia. It's an obstacle course littered with loose rocks, flooded in low spots, and ribbed with rail tracks, wires, conveyor belts. For Randy, daylight is now two miles away.

A heavy lamp battery, an emergency breathing canister, and a rock hammer swing wide from his work belt as he runs, their clatter keeping rough time with the clank of the coal-laden conveyor belt snaking along beside him through the tunnels. Randy is a heavy metal fan in a country music world, and to his ear the machines down here have always played familiar Metallica tunes: Trapped Under Ice, Enter Sandman, Fade to Black. It's the right soundtrack for a hard life.

Into the second mile his breathing is heavy. He slaps his hard hat snug to jump across water holes. His headlamp is the only star in this black universe. "Skinny," his work nickname, is written across his hard hat in yellow tape. The last part now is a long, uphill slog. Randy climbs away from the conveyor's riff. Finally, ahead, the sheet-metal swinging doors show a little daylight from their edges. It's all rumble and the Fear of God going down, but coming up through those old tin doors is Thank You, Jesus, and a deep breath of forest air.

The hospital in Clarksburg looks like any other, except for Randy McCloy, still black from the mine, now racing through the white hallways. His wife Anna is heading into the ER for an unplanned C-section. He got the word from Flea, the mine dispatcher, and Randy just ran out without waiting for the rail tram and without telling his crewmates. For hours his crew thinks maybe he fell into the machinery. That can happen.

Randy and Anna don't do a thing without each other, not since grade school. In high school Anna got so disgusted with Randy's hard times at home, an upbringing he doesn't like to dwell on, that she scooped him up and took him to live with her family. It wasn't a big mobile home, but they made room for him. Over the years, Anna helped him pass his GED and his mine safety test. Her long dark hair and pretty face became the center of his world.

The couple already have one baby at home, and Randy is determined to be here for the arrival of this one as well. The nurses act put out but are trying not to smile. Sometimes the world bends its rules around such men, and sometimes maybe fate does, too.

Little Isabel – Izzy – comes out fine. And when Randy returns to the mine the men teach him how to be a roof bolter so he can make the kind of money a family man needs.

"We'll give you a shot, Skinny," says Owie Jones, his foreman at the time. "But don't get your hopes up. Bolting is trickier than it looks."

It looks tricky enough.

The flat shale ceilings of the coal mine tunnels are studded every few feet with roof bolts that usually go six feet up into the rock formations, laminating them into one slab and, with luck, keeping them from falling. Collapses are the most common way to die in a coal mine.

Randy is a little slow at first. But more and more he holds everything just right and hits the levers at the proper split second, so the bit and the extensions go straight up into the rock and come out all in one piece, ready for the epoxy snakes and the long bolt that will go into the new hole. When he finally thinks he's getting good, someone greases the control handles of his machine, just to remind him he's still the rookie.

He becomes, over time, a perfectionist. He earns the miners' respect. He is a steel-driving man in a tunnel under a mountain, surrounded by men who treat him like family. He is a happy man. He'll be three years in the Sago Mine.