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
At 6:26 a.m. the mine's superintendent, Jeff Toler, 42, nephew of Randy's current foreman Junior Toler, is on the office phone with dispatcher Bill "Flea" Chisolm, 47. Flea, the sole black man at Sago, is describing the storm outside his window when a monster lightning strike very nearby sends a loud pop through the phone lines – enough to make Flea toss down the receiver with a "Damn!"

In the same instant, right across Sago Road from the mine and next to the Sago Baptist Church, Clifford and Victoria Rice are nearly bounced out of bed by a deep boom. Two windows break. And then the earth rolls beneath them. Something is happening.

The sealed area of the tunnel – 4 million cubic feet loaded with methane – has just exploded.

At the far end of the mine, where the Two Left crew is already at work, Randy McCloy is readying his big Fletcher bolter when he hears the boom in the distance. A hot wind rushes through. He shuts his eyes to it. His ears ring. All 12 men quickly gather in the bright lights near the electrical shed, the "power center," where the 7,200-volt main line branches to the big machines.

"Did you all hear that?" asks Junior Toler. "Well, that was an explosion." He says it not because anyone requires an explanation, but because he is the foreman and it needs saying. Here it is, the moment you've prayed against 10,000 times.

Junior tries to call Flea, but the Two Left phone is dead.

"Get your lunch buckets, and let's get out," Junior says calmly.

What he said, and what happened next in the Two Left section, are from the smoked memories of Randy McCloy.

Before the hot wind found randy and the two left crew, it hit the men of One Left, still in the main tunnels. They are closer than any others to the explosion, save fire boss Terry Helms, who was right at the junction next to the sealed area, powering up a conveyor belt. A week earlier another fire boss, John Boni, had noticed a leak in the seal walls. It wasn't too big. He reported it, but nothing was done. The fact that Terry threw the switch to the conveyer belt right then, at the moment of explosion, would later be pronounced a coincidence, which it might have been. But then again, the switch tended to throw off a lot of sparks. Maybe that, combined with the methane leaking into the junction, caused a small explosion that ignited the larger one.

Or maybe thunder from the storm passing over the mountains shook the ground enough to knock a piece of ceiling off. Falling roof rocks can spark against the bolts and mesh. Or maybe, as scientists at the esteemed Sandia Labs in New Mexico would later theorize, mammoth lightning bolts (they were positively charged, making them many times more powerful than normal, negatively charged lightning) might have created an electromagnetic wave through the ground. The abandoned area had a cable running through the middle, despite rules against this, and that could have picked up the charge, turning it into a giant spark plug.

But God and only God will ever know for certain. All that is known in this first moment is that the mountain is alive.

The One Left crew, on their way in on the mantrip, had stopped for a moment to throw a rail switch when the section blew. A violent blast of hot air and debris hit the men, with rock shot stinging through their heavy clothes and ripping into their skin.

The One Left crew foreman is Owie Jones, Randy's old foreman and the brother of Jesse Jones on Randy's crew. Owie is up in the driver's cockpit, and the blast blows him headlong out of the vehicle.

The explosion pulverizes the seal walls, blasts through a cement block wall, and then through another cement block wall. It picks up a 1,500-pound mantrip charger and sends it tumbling toward the men. That knocks loose a 26-foot beam that comes their way too. Tons of grit, gravel, coal dust, smoke, and soot roar down upon them. They tuck their heads down hard and wait to see if this is it.

The long minutes are probably only about 10 seconds. The wind stops. The big debris hasn't hit them.

The One Left men are thick with soot. Their hard hats are cracked. They are bleeding under layers of oily-smelling dust and mud.

"What the fuck was that?" somebody yells.

"The mine's just blew up!" another answers.

They work their way out of the mantrip and swim into the darkness and heat. Limping and carrying one another, they begin the long trudge out. When his crew seems safe Owie turns around and heads back to try to find Jesse, his brother, in Two Left. He is soon joined by managers Jeff Toler and Dick Wilfong, who have raced in on a mantrip. On foot now, they will explore together until the smoke is too much.