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
Four and a half hours after the explosion, Junior Toler breaks the silence: "All right, boys, why don't we just say a little prayer here." He recites the Sinner's Prayer, wherein a man asks that there be a place in heaven for an old sinner. It is a simple prayer; most of the men know it in one form or another.

The moment hits the men hard. There is some sobbing, like the low chant of old monks. Then it gets quiet again. Carbon-monoxide poisoning starts with headaches and sometimes nausea, then deep depression.

"You might think about writing a note for your family," Junior says. Men turn on their cap lamps and share bits of paper and some pens.

The little refuge is getting smokier, as the poison air shows whiter in the headlamp beams.

Randy puts his note in another miner's lunch box, as his own Igloo is back on the mantrip. His note reads:

Anna, I love you very much. To my son, trust in the Lord always. To my daughter, stay sweet. To Dad and Mom, I love you. I really don't know how to write this. I'm not all that afraid. I know that we'll be running through your heads. My greatest fear is never seeing my children grow and be there for them. I just love you all so much. Sorry I got into this mess, not for my sake, for yours. Don't grieve for long, I want you all to be happy in life. Daddy.

The men don't read their notes out loud; they tuck them away.

Jim Bennett, at 61, is the oldest. He often reads his Bible over lunch. He doesn't cuss and doesn't appreciate any cussing around him, though he's nice about it. He loves the mines and has never done any other kind of work. He has a wife, Lily, a daughter, Ann Meredith, and a son, John. He has seven grandkids and two great-grandkids, and he is going to retire in three months. He writes:

Lily, I love you. If someone finds this, please give this to my wife. I love you. We have air right now, but the smoke is bad. Tell my mother I love her and my kids. Love, Daddy.

He notes the time: 11:40 a.m.

Up top, the dynamite blasts do not happen. the seismic listening device is not brought in. The rescue capsule used so successfully at Quecreek and now on display in an MSHA lobby somewhere is also not brought in. Why? The rescue-organizing team, mostly first-timers, figure that it will take too long to calibrate exact positions for the seismic gear. If you don't use the seismic gear, then you don't need the rescue capsule. That's the thinking.

When the mine owner finally submits a rescue plan to the MSHA men now on-site, it is a plan to wait and to watch the gas readings. You don't want to send men into a mine if it looks as if it's going to blow again. A lot of mine tragedies have doubled when rescue teams have gone in too soon.

If the mine had buried a hardened communication line under the tracks, then the rescuers would be able to talk to the trapped men, and that would move everything along. If the mine had installed underground rescue chambers, the men could wait patiently inside. If MSHA had the kind of mass spectrometer, long used in other countries, that can tell if the gasses venting out of the mine are from the original explosion, not from a still-burning fire, you could go right in, and everybody but Terry Helms would be home by now.

For now the men of TwoLeft mostly pray by themselves and rest their heads on their arms and knees. After several dark hours, George Hamner, 54, the crew's "buggy runner," who hauls supplies to the work teams, turns on his cap lamp, looks at his watch, and writes a note to his wife and daughter:

Hi Deb and Sara. I'm still OK at 2:40 p.m. I don't know what's going on between here and the outside. We don't hear any attempts at drilling or rescue. The section is full of smoke and fumes, so we can't escape. We are all alive at this time. I just want you and Sara to know I love you both and always have. Be strong and I hope no one else has to show you this note. I'm in no pain, but I don't know how long the air will last.

Jackie Weaver, 51, the crew's mechanic, is sitting near Randy. He is calm and tries to comfort Randy: "Randy, if it's our time to go, then God's will will be done," he says.

Randy nods.

Jerry Groves, 56, is sitting to Randy's right. He has a big gray beard and a famous sense of humor. He is Randy's bolting partner. They have spirited competitions every day to get a bolt in faster than the other guy. They eat together on the bolter, and Jerry's wife Debbie always puts an extra snack cake or something in for Randy.

Jerry and Jackie treat Randy like a son, as do all the older guys – but especially Jerry and Jackie. Randy knows they are fading away. In the dim tunnel no one jokes or tries to lighten things.

On and off they hit the bolt. They are tired and dizzy. They don't know that no one on the surface is listening, so they keep at it as best they can.

Randy takes long goodbye looks at the men around him as everyone begins to nod. He startles awake when he hears a crash – maybe a rescue crew coming through the roof. But it is one of the men falling over, his gear and hard hat cracking against the floor. He is gone.

Randy says the Sinner's Prayer once or twice and, for the first time, feels the full weight of despair.

Nearer the entrance to the barricade two of the older men are already dead. Their friends move them into the small alcove tunnel and lay them out, arms across their chests like in a funeral home.

At some quiet moment, Junior Toler writes a note:

Tell all I see them on the other side. I love you. It wasn't bad. I just went to sleep. I love you.

His words trail off the page.

"Lord, don't let me die – not like this" is Randy's last conscious thought. There follows a long time of something between life and death, between waking and sleeping. The last lamp goes out and the men are in darkness. Randy can feel something heavy. Jerry, his old friend, has fallen over on him.