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 2:40 a.m. people are still waiting in the church to see the miners. Anna is in the community room having coffee and finally looking at some food. A warm happiness has settled into her. The people in the sanctuary get quieter all of a sudden – she figures for prayer – so she decides to join them.

She hadn't seen the black Yukon arrive, always the bearer of news from across the road. It is idling outside, steaming in the cold. She hadn't seen mine president Hatfield and Governor Manchin walk ashen-faced into the church. As she enters, Anna hears Hatfield say the words "expired" and "perished" and "bodies." She sees Hatfield struggling not to cry. All the air falls out of the room, as if this white box full of souls had just gone off a cliff but not yet found the air to scream.

The air comes back with the wailing of women. Many fall to the floor, curling into their screams. Their men are too amazed and angry to comfort them. They strut about with their fists in the air. "Liars! Liars!" they shout at the officials; some clutch their stomachs as if they have been shot. Fathers and brothers weep into one another.

Anna holds on to the end of a pew. She wants to scream but cannot. She starts to faint. She clutches the pew harder. She is nearly out, nearly down, when she hears Hatfield's voice: "We have one survivor: Randal L. McCloy Jr."

Anna doesn't know how to react. Nothing is real. She doesn't trust her ears or her own thoughts. There is no logic in the world to hold onto. It is all chaos.

A man lunges for Hatfield, who cuts his remarks short. Others surge toward the governor. State troopers surround the officials, pull them out of the church and into the black Yukon. Men run after it, yelling, clawing the road, and throwing gravel and whatever they can find at the car as it speeds away.

Anna is lifted from the molten sanctuary by a nephew. And in the cold rain that had begun to fall outside the church, she suddenly realizes something and screams it to her family: "That was Randy in that ambulance!"

She eventually catches up to him in a hallway at West Virginia University's Ruby Memorial Hospital, in Morgantown, 80 miles away. He is unconscious, dehydrated, and hypothermic. Coal is still caked on his teeth. She thinks she feels him squeeze her hand. The gurney is speeding him to surgery.

Randy will later be sent to Pittsburgh for intensive oxygen-saturation therapy. Anna will never leave his side. Prognosis: If he lives at all, which is touch and go, he will probably be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. You don't suffer that much carbon monoxide and walk home normal.

That might have been true, if not for Anna. The way she bullies and woos him back to health is another story, and a long one. She not only promises him he will drive again; she buys him a red Mustang and presses the keys into his fist when he still can't say a word.

As the weeks pass Randy comes out of his coma once just to say "I love you" to Anna, then slips back. A few days later he comes out for good. He does so with a scream of "Fuck!" that is heard all over the hospital.

Then come the nightmares. He will wake up at night saying things that might or might not be memories: "Where's Jerry? Explosion! The other guys!" Anna moves a bed into his room so she can hold him at night.

He says strange things in his half-conscious early therapy. "Not going to wake up tonight," he mumbles to a nurse. "I got ya! I got ya! Dizzy, dizzy! I'm helping ya out!... Not gone yet!... That's my rescue tube.... Seems like forever!"

Nurses, using massages, treadmills, a swimming pool, weight machines, even a shopping cart weighted with paint cans, teach him to walk again and to think and speak clearly again. They have to face down the storms of abusive anger that come with brain recovery.

Country music stars keep writing songs about Sago, and when they play in the area Anna drags them into that hospital room. "Randy, look who's here to visit you," she says one day.

Randy opens his eyes: "That would be Brad Paisley," he says, and goes back under. Another time it is Hank Williams Jr. Metallica sends a big box of CDs for her to play for him.

Jim Klug and his rescue team are suffering too. They all wish they could have gone in sooner. While Randy is still in a coma, Klug finds himself driving to the Morgantown hospital with a crew member. When they get there Anna is at Randy's side, and Randy's brother Chris is near her, staring at the intruders.

Klug says who he is. He doesn't know whether he's in for a lot of anger over decisions that were made higher up. He sticks out his hand toward Chris.

Chris just looks at Klug's hand, and a long couple of seconds pass.

"Hell, I don't want to shake your hand," Chris finally says. "I want to give you a hug, man!" And that was that.

After three months Randy goes home. There are red ribbons all along the roads. The governor renames the path into his hollow Miracle Road. He walks stiffly and talks strangely, and that scares Randal III and Izzy at first. But he keeps at it.

These days Randy, now 29, can pull back his compound bow as well as anybody. He talks pretty well – a little slower and more thoughtfully, but pretty well. He is a little sadder than the old Randy. But not too long ago he gave an acquaintance a short drive in a red Mustang when Anna wasn't looking.

Mine laws changed because of Sago. Hardened communication systems, better breathers, emergency refuge chambers, stronger seal walls: These are all the law now. Coal mining is still the most dangerous work there is, and it only seems to get safer one tragedy at a time. You could have another long story just about the widows and children of the men who died and all they have done to pass the new rules.

You should know that Flea Chisolm, the mine dispatcher, and John Boni, the fire boss who had reported the leak in the sealed area, took their own lives in the months after the disaster. That also seems to happen after such tragedies. Money that the federal government allocated for stress counseling at Sago, $35,000, got lost for a few months somewhere in the state government. The suicides forced them to find it. The governor's office issued an apology.

Some of the families of the victims would call the state's report on Sago a political whitewash for going too easy on the mining company and for just blaming a lightning bolt when, if anything, lightning was simply the match on a big pile ready to go.

As for Randy, he will probably never be physically able to return to the mines, even if he'd want to. He might like security work somewhere when he is a little more ready. For now, he is happy to have his days and nights with Anna and their children in Green Hollow and some disability and settlement money to live on. But, like everyone in the shadow of the Sago disaster, there is a distant and serious look in the eyes that doesn't really go away.