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
Monday, January 2, the first workday of 2006, comes just a few months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. Oddly warm weather has blown up from the South Pacific, pushing wildfires across 300,000 panhandle acres, wiping out several small towns in West Texas and continuing right into Oklahoma City. It then moves through the Mississippi Delta in a hellstorm of tornadoes and hail. In the first dark hours of January 2, the front assembles in a fiery line along the western and southern edges of West Virginia. It is bringing a particular lightning bolt to Sago.

Hours before the Appalachian dawn, thousands of wives are already awake, pulling clothes from dryers and preparing lunch boxes for their coal miner husbands. Dogs are soon barking their goodbyes to the men. Anna McCloy stands a little longer than usual in her trailer doorway, watching until Randy drives over the railroad tracks and out of view. He always says a little prayer with her before he leaves. If he forgets to do that, or forgets to tell her he loves her, he always drives back. It is 4:15 a.m. as he heads for Sago.

Anna was awakened earlier by a nightmare – of a big family funeral with an empty casket. The same bad dream has haunted her for several nights, and she is exhausted from little sleep.

As Randy drives the long way to the mine, the storm clouds cross the Ohio River from the west and the Tug Fork and Big Sandy from the south. Five miles below this cresting wave, the movements of men and trucks are but fireflies in the woods.

At 5:45 am, the "one left" and "two left" crews, a dozen men each, are suiting up in the shower house of the Sago Mine, a small, 148-miner coal operation, one of a dozen mines owned by privately held International Coal Group. If you've worked the mines, you know the routine: Your hard hat, tool belt, boots, and emergency breathing gear are locked high in a steel basket, one basket per miner. You take off your street clothes and put on a rental uniform and your gear. You head over to the dispatcher's trailer to get your lamp, which clips to the square block on the front of your hard hat. You move the brass tag with your name on it to the inside section of the control board. You buy a cup of coffee from the vending machine.

You nod to the mine dispatcher through his window, and you trudge down the boardwalk into the pit – the shallow quarry where a curved metal canopy frames the mine portal. From the outside it looks like a storage shed. Narrow rail tracks lead inside. You climb aboard a "mantrip" electric shuttle.

The dozen men of the Two Left crew go down first, as they have the farthest to travel. Randy, 26, is the youngest of them. Eight of the men are in their 50s. Everyone is talking about that night's Sugar Bowl game, which will feature the West Virginia Mountaineers from an hour's drive up the road in Morgantown. Lightning begins to pop, and rain falls suddenly and hard just as they go under.

That wild ride into the Sago Mine – no falling-apart amusement park has one better. You get inside your beat-up mantrip and down you go. The mantrip's a squashed peanut of a vehicle, with a low, open center where the driver sits. He can swing around in his seat to go in either direction, as there is no way to turn the vehicle around underground. The low cabins, fore and aft, hold six to eight men each and have wire-grid openings for windows.

The first steep grade is slippery with winter ice. You buck back and forth and always worry that you might fly off the haphazard tracks, which happens often enough. You clutch your lunch pail. There is a black hole ahead, pulling you down. When the tracks finally level off, you hit the fast curves, clickety-click.

You make the last curve, and then it's up a little underground hill and straight ahead, a bit less than two bumpy miles to go. You are in a drift mine, so named because the coal layer drifts right out the side of the mountain, and you just follow it in, mining as you go. At Sago, you go a good 300 vertical feet down, and it's coal all the way.

There are two left turns off the main tunnels. The second dogleg, Two Left, a section of eight tunnels running parallel to each other, extends about three-quarters of a mile. Right at that junction the nine main tunnels are sealed off ahead with lightweight fiber blocks. (To get the idea of all the parallel tunnels, imagine drawing a picture of the mine on the ground with a garden rake.) Beyond those seal walls is a recently abandoned section the size of four Carnegie Halls. It is a waiting bomb.

The section was sealed off a couple of weeks earlier because too much water was coming in, too much methane, and the roof kept falling. One man was seriously injured in a collapse six months earlier. Then a six-foot-thick, 100-foot-long piece of the roof came down a month after that, luckily missing the workers. Methane is filling the section at a rate of about 14,000 cubic feet a day. It needs only 14 days to reach the 5 percent concentration needed to be explosive, which is exactly the time it has had. A few more days and it will be too rich to blow and thus forever inert. You might think they would give a mine a little time to itself during that dangerous time, but MSHA, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, doesn't require that, which means it doesn't happen.