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
All day Monday, all that night, all Tuesday morning and afternoon, the rescue continues slowly in fits and starts. Jeff Toler argues that the rescue should start in the tunnels where he and the others left off. The MSHA men, backed up by the mine owner reps, think they should do it by the book, starting at the portal. When you go into a mine for a rescue, you examine every square foot, measure every breath of air, and document every irregularity. Depending on conditions, it can take an hour or two to cover 100 yards. To some of the Sago men in the command center, that sounds like a death sentence for their friends below.

Rescue teams have rushed to Sago from as far away as Illinois. They are frustrated by the delays. Some have flown in by private jet, only to cool their heels for endless hours now. The teams are let into the mine and then pulled out, once because they find a red light on inside. They think that means there is still some power on in the mine that might spark another explosion, but in fact the light is powered by a battery. Another time a flooded area is considered too deep to allow proper ventilation and has to be drained. Yet another time the teams are pulled out so an experimental robot, meant to take a camera deep where rescuers can't go, can be tested. It gets mired in the mud.

Jim Klug and his rescue team from Pennsylvania's McElroy Mine have been waiting in a nearby motel for their turn inside. Klug, like any miner who does rescue work, is anxious but doesn't want to rush into an unsafe mine; he has a family waiting for him at home.

Around 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, his team is summoned to the portal. For four hours, just outside the mine, they wait, acting as backup to a team inside that is backing up another team, deeper in. The teams gradually rotate, replacing the exhausted team at the front. Klug learns that his crew will be the backup to the local Tri-State Rescue team, selected to make the final push to the back of the mine.

Before they go in Klug is taken into a back room and handed a list of the missing men's names, each numbered. Because there have been press leaks from the command center and because the walkie-talkies may have other ears listening, he is to refer to any discovered dead body as an "item." The number on the list will be used to identify the victim; miners have brass name tags on their belts.

Klug's crew of seven climb aboard a mantrip and take the roller coaster down. They go as far as the 'trip will take them and then proceed on foot to the fresh air base, which is the farthest extension of the repaired ventilation and communication lines. At 53 block, meaning the 53rd point where the crosscut tunnels intersect the main tunnels, they meet the Tri-State crew. One of its men has lost a nosepiece critical to his breathing apparatus. Command center switches the teams: Klug's men will go in, Tri-State will back up. This is the final push.

Command notifies Klug that his team can blow past the usual 1,000-foot limit. Normally, at that point you would stop to secure a new fresh air base, hanging curtains to bring in good air and extending the phone line. But they are almost at the end. The decision will overstretch their communication capabilities.

Klug's yellow-hatted McElroy men, wearing full rescue apparatus, make the difficult scramble over the huge pile of steel and cement in the junction – the same pile that had prevented the Two Left crew from escaping.

At the abandoned Two Left mantrip, Klug's team drops off team member Kelvin Jolly with a walkie-talkie to serve as a relay; otherwise they'll be too far to signal back to the men waiting at the junction. Even so, the signal is already starting to break up, so Jolly will have to run back and forth a few hundred yards each time to get enough signal to pass messages. He will have to navigate a thigh-deep, 150-foot-long water hole each time.

Farther in, Klug's team wades through deep water in places and skirts equipment and piles of debris as they move along in standard side-by-side rescue formation, checking every inch for downed men and dangers, stopping regularly to measure the air.

Finally, at the end of the line, Klug sees a plastic curtain ahead, tight against the coal. He hears something from behind it, a gasping sound. He rushes through it and then another curtain behind that. It's 11:40 p.m., 41 hours after the explosion.

It is the men.

The rest of the team comes in. Someone grabs a walkie-talkie to get word to Jolly, the relay. The breathing gear makes it hard to be heard right, and the signal is breaking up.

The words "We found 'em" and "alive" are part of the intermittent radio message. Then later the words "all 12."

Jolly gathers that they found the men, all 12, alive. He passes the word down the walkie-talkie line, through other relays and eventually to Chris Lilly, captain of the Tri-State team, who is on the mine phone back at the fresh-air base. Lilly asks for verification. Jolly confirms on behalf of the men at the coal face: 12 alive. That's what he heard. Chris calls it into the command center at 11:50 pm.

The command center explodes with a cheer. No one can believe the good news. Men are crying with joy.

But in the small barricade in Two Left, Klug surveys a grim scene. His meter reads a deadly 426 parts per million carbon monoxide – nearly twice what's considered a deadly level. His cap lamp scans a body leaning against a corner of the curtain wall; others are curled against the right side of the tunnel. Same on the left.

Then, at the far end of the tunnel, a man, the last on the left, gasps for air. It is Randy McCloy. He is not exactly breathing, but struggling to take a breath every eight seconds, each time like a drowning man coming up for air.

Klug runs to him. Randy sits slouched against the coal wall. Klug and another rescuer pull Jerry's body off of him. Jerry is a big man and his weight against Randy's chest has most likely kept Randy's breathing shallow and his body warm, maybe saving his life.

The team members break open a rescue breather. Randy takes a good gulp from it. They roll him to the middle of the tunnel and start screaming at him to keep breathing, they scream that they are here, that he is alive, that he will be out of the mine and back with his family soon. Every time he takes a breath it sounds like his last.

"C'mon, buddy! Keep breathing! Open your mouth, bud, stop clenching your teeth!" Klug is having a hard time prying open Randy's mouth. He finally gets a breather secure as he yells to his team members to send for more help.

Randy's eyes open a little, and he seems to be looking around. He can't see. Erosion of the optic nerve from the carbon monoxide has made him temporarily blind, but his glance encourages the rescue workers.

Team members start checking the other men. They are cold and stiff; their whole bodies move when their arms are lifted. Some have been hemorrhaging red foam from their mouths. The rescuers check for pulses. One man seems to gasp when they move him, and for a few seconds they think he is alive, but it is just air escaping.

The rescuers tie Randy to a stretcher with his own bootlaces and move him out. Klug runs beside him, holding one and then another rescue breather to Randy's mouth as they go. It is a long, difficult carry.