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
On the other side of the blast, far back in two left, Randy's crew begins making their way through the dust. They head back toward their mantrip, which is about a quarter-mile ahead in deep smoke. Some of the "stopping" walls, built between the parallel tunnels for ventilation control, are still teetering down.

They take the middle tunnel, guided by the tracks, then cross to the far left, into the air-intake tunnel – the designated escapeway. In tight formation they shuffle forward in a jittery halo of headlamp beams.

"Stay together," Junior calls out. "Pay attention."

With all finally aboard the mantrip, Junior drives it slowly, pushing fallen materials ahead of them. Some men stick their noses into their lunch pails to take a breath of air from home.

They travel only about 500 feet before there is just too much stuff in the way. They are near the junction into the main tunnels.

Though they don't know it, the body of their friend, fire boss Terry Helms, is just ahead, near the rail switch, dead on his back and so covered with soot that he will later be hard to find.

Junior repeatedly rams into the debris, but it is no-go. They drive back to slightly better air to put on their emergency breathing gear and maybe find a way out on foot.

"Put 'em on, boys," Junior says as they pile slowly from the mantrip. Everyone is serious. Everyone is sooty. The older men are already coughing hard.

Donning the gear takes some concentration. The breather looks like a big canteen. You pry off the lid and put on a nose clip and goggles. The mouthpiece is like a swim snorkel. You pull a cord, open a valve, hang the whole thing on your chest. You breathe hard into the mouthpiece and a large plastic bag – big as a turkey bag – inflates at your chest. You will rebreathe that same breath for as long as the chemical canister can crack your carbon dioxide back into oxygen. The men have often trained on these SCSRs (self-contained self-rescuers), and they work fine when you don't need them. Jesse Jones, 44, Owie's brother, is having a problem with his. Jesse is one of the four bolters on the crew – always serious about his work, and now he is seriously trying to get the breather to operate. He has a gray goatee and is a handsome man; he could be a country music star if looks decided it.

He lets Randy fiddle with his breather, but no deal.

Junior Toler can't get his to work either. Tom Anderson and Jerry Groves can't get theirs working. Four of the 12 units seem useless. They will share, if it comes to that.

They explore around for clearer air in the side tunnels, but everywhere the smoke is thick; the men without working canisters are already struggling to breathe.

They could chance walking into the soup, but they don't know the condition of the mine. It might take one hour or five to go the two miles. They might get caught halfway when their one-hour canisters give out. Or they can just do the thing they have been trained to do, which is to make a barricade and hunker down until rescued.

Randy has always felt indestructible. Maybe he could run out, like before. He thinks about it, but not for long. The men are determined to stick together. They aren't going to leave the older men behind.

Junior finally says it: "Well, there's nothing left to do. We're going to have to get back to section and barricade." There is no argument.

On their way they gather plastic curtain material to use for the barricade and find triangular nails, called spads, at the power center to tack the plastic into the coal.

Back at the coal face, tunnels three, four, and five have recently been cut the farthest into the mountain. Number three is Junior's pick. It has a little dead-end side tunnel off to the left – a future crosscut. That alcove will give them some extra air and space. They are now as far back in the mine as they can go, as far away from the bad air as they can be.

Point your right hand's index finger straight ahead, and stick your thumb out to your left. That was the layout. They nail curtain crossways across the intersection, making a backward L-shaped barricade about the size of a school bus interior. They tack up a second set of curtains for good measure.

With the spads they sew the plastic sheets to the wire grid of the seven-foot-high ceiling and nail the material tight to the walls. They pile loose coal at the base of the curtain to snug it down. The work helps warm them up in the 55-degree tunnel.

They have extra plastic, so they each put down a square to sit on, since the floor is wet with coal mud. Randy picks a spot near the end of the longer tunnel, against the left side. He is as far back as he can go without sitting in water pooled at the end. They sit with their backs to the walls, waiting for the sound of three dynamite blasts on the surface.

Your training tells you to wait for that, then to start pounding on the roof bolts. You keep pounding until you hear five shots above, which means they have located you with seismic gear and are on their way. A sticker inside your hard hat tells you all that, and you have read it a thousand times.

The crew listens. There is an occasional noise outside the curtain – mostly the falling of concrete blocks and other debris. Otherwise, it is dead quiet.

Junior Toler, whose proper name is Martin, suggests they stay out of their lunch boxes until they know how long they are going to be down there. It might take a while for the rescue to get organized.

Randy left his lunch box back on the mantrip, but like most, he's too worried to eat anyway.

"And we don't need to all have our cap lamps on," Junior says. They leave one on at a time. There is nothing darker than a coal mine with the lights out. Most men can't stand it more than five or 10 seconds.

They have been very anxious and busy through all this, but now they start to settle in.

Junior has 32 years in the mines, which have made him a calm leader, always thinking. He has dark hair and a small, dark mustache, and could pass for a lawyer in town. He has two kids, Courtney and Chris, and a wife, Mary Lou. The Tolers have been in the mines for many generations.

He looks at his watch and keeps waiting for the signal blasts. Randy watches him think.

Farther up in the mine, Junior's nephew Jeff Toler, Owie Jones, and Dick Wilfong are making their way toward the men. They send for big rolls of plastic sheeting so they can repair the flow of fresh air as they go: They work like madmen patching the downed stopping walls, built to seal the farthest left and farthest right tunnels into incoming and outgoing air ducts. The system is in ruins.

They work through the morning, pushing nearly two miles into the mine. They are almost at the junction of Two Left, almost at the abandoned section that blew, almost at Terry's body. But the smoke ahead is too thick, curling around on itself like a pit of serpents – a sulfurous, yellow brew like nothing they have ever seen or imagined. It looks alive – mesmerizing and deeply spooky.

They don't have enough incoming air to deal with it. Even if they could push that serpent farther back, they know they might just be chasing it onto the Two Left men, who might have found a good pocket of air. They have come as close to the missing men as they can get, though they are still more than a half-mile away. The three stay a while, listening for sounds, but they have done all they can do. Their breathing gear is spent and their carbon monoxide warning alarms are fried. They backtrack to a working phone, and Jeff, utterly exhausted, is crying a little as he explains their situation to a mine inspector. At 9:30 am they begin the long walk out. It takes them an hour.