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
Deep in two left, Junior Toler and Tom Anderson decide they are going to slip out from the barricade to see if the air is improving. They come back in less than three minutes, coughing and gasping. They take some swigs on borrowed breathers. "Man, I'm dizzy," Junior says. He at least found an eight-pound sledgehammer to pound on the bolts for the signal.

He tells the men to tack up the curtain tighter; the smoke is getting worse, and it will want to come in. After a time Junior says something like, "Well, we have waited for those three shots long enough. Maybe we just can't hear them. Maybe we should pound the bolts so at least they can hear us. They have better listening equipment up there."

Randy argues that they should pick one bolt and hit only that one, or else they might confuse the listening equipment, as sound can take different routes through rock. They pick one near the curtain, in the middle of the junction of the tunnels – a nice, wide ceiling. Maybe the rescuers will drill down to that spot with one of those little rescue tubes as they did for the nine miners in Quecreek, Pennsylvania, the year before – a little capsule that can haul up one man at a time through a wide drill hole.

They are finally doing something. Each hit makes a deep metal kang sound. Junior rotates the sledgehammer duty around the crew, 10 slams per turn. You can't use your breathing gear when you're swinging a big hammer to the ceiling, so you run out of air fast.

By now, some of the men are not doing very well. They have been deep in carbon monoxide for several hours. More and more breathing devices have been coming up spent. Jesse passes Randy's breather back to him and says he thinks it's had it. Randy tries to take a last breath from it, but it's gone.

There is a decent amount of oxygen in the tunnel, but carbon monoxide latches onto your red blood cells in the places where oxygen is supposed to bond, crowding the oxygen out. You struggle harder and harder.

They pound the bolt through most of the morning. They're beat.

Junior suggests they rest and save their strength; maybe they will finally hear those shots yet, and then they can start pounding again.

It is about 10:30 am. Things go quiet. The men rest and pray.

Just after 11 a.m. the local Barbour County mine rescue team is on-site and ready to roll. The crew will not be able to go in, however, until the mine owner, International Coal Group, submits a written plan to the federal MSHA inspectors and it's approved. The Bush administration has been making major changes to MSHA; this is the first real test of a new philosophy of letting the mine company, rather than MSHA, run the rescue show. With the company calling the shots and MSHA having to sign off on each step, it plays out slowly, like an underground Katrina: getting things ready, assessing rescue crews, assigning backup crews, arranging backups for the backups, measuring gas levels coming out of the portal.