Randy McCloy, lean, 6-foot-1, is racing through the black puzzle of the Sago Mine. Nine parallel tunnels, intersected every 100 feet by connecting tunnels, form a grid extending nearly three miles under a hilly forest of West Virginia. It’s an obstacle course littered with loose rocks, flooded in low spots, and ribbed with rail tracks, wires, conveyor belts. For Randy, daylight is now two miles away.
A heavy lamp battery, an emergency breathing canister, and a rock hammer swing wide from his work belt as he runs, their clatter keeping rough time with the clank of the coal-laden conveyor belt snaking along beside him through the tunnels. Randy is a heavy metal fan in a country music world, and to his ear the machines down here have always played familiar Metallica tunes: Trapped Under Ice, Enter Sandman, Fade to Black. It’s the right soundtrack for a hard life.
Into the second mile his breathing is heavy. He slaps his hard hat snug to jump across water holes. His headlamp is the only star in this black universe. “Skinny,” his work nickname, is written across his hard hat in yellow tape. The last part now is a long, uphill slog. Randy climbs away from the conveyor’s riff. Finally, ahead, the sheet-metal swinging doors show a little daylight from their edges. It’s all rumble and the Fear of God going down, but coming up through those old tin doors is Thank You, Jesus, and a deep breath of forest air.
The hospital in Clarksburg looks like any other, except for Randy McCloy, still black from the mine, now racing through the white hallways. His wife Anna is heading into the ER for an unplanned C-section. He got the word from Flea, the mine dispatcher, and Randy just ran out without waiting for the rail tram and without telling his crewmates. For hours his crew thinks maybe he fell into the machinery. That can happen.
Randy and Anna don’t do a thing without each other, not since grade school. In high school Anna got so disgusted with Randy’s hard times at home, an upbringing he doesn’t like to dwell on, that she scooped him up and took him to live with her family. It wasn’t a big mobile home, but they made room for him. Over the years, Anna helped him pass his GED and his mine safety test. Her long dark hair and pretty face became the center of his world.
The couple already have one baby at home, and Randy is determined to be here for the arrival of this one as well. The nurses act put out but are trying not to smile. Sometimes the world bends its rules around such men, and sometimes maybe fate does, too.
Little Isabel – Izzy – comes out fine. And when Randy returns to the mine the men teach him how to be a roof bolter so he can make the kind of money a family man needs.
“We’ll give you a shot, Skinny,” says Owie Jones, his foreman at the time. “But don’t get your hopes up. Bolting is trickier than it looks.”
It looks tricky enough.
The flat shale ceilings of the coal mine tunnels are studded every few feet with roof bolts that usually go six feet up into the rock formations, laminating them into one slab and, with luck, keeping them from falling. Collapses are the most common way to die in a coal mine.
Randy is a little slow at first. But more and more he holds everything just right and hits the levers at the proper split second, so the bit and the extensions go straight up into the rock and come out all in one piece, ready for the epoxy snakes and the long bolt that will go into the new hole. When he finally thinks he’s getting good, someone greases the control handles of his machine, just to remind him he’s still the rookie.
He becomes, over time, a perfectionist. He earns the miners’ respect. He is a steel-driving man in a tunnel under a mountain, surrounded by men who treat him like family. He is a happy man. He’ll be three years in the Sago Mine.Monday, January 2, the first workday of 2006, comes just a few months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. Oddly warm weather has blown up from the South Pacific, pushing wildfires across 300,000 panhandle acres, wiping out several small towns in West Texas and continuing right into Oklahoma City. It then moves through the Mississippi Delta in a hellstorm of tornadoes and hail. In the first dark hours of January 2, the front assembles in a fiery line along the western and southern edges of West Virginia. It is bringing a particular lightning bolt to Sago.
Hours before the Appalachian dawn, thousands of wives are already awake, pulling clothes from dryers and preparing lunch boxes for their coal miner husbands. Dogs are soon barking their goodbyes to the men. Anna McCloy stands a little longer than usual in her trailer doorway, watching until Randy drives over the railroad tracks and out of view. He always says a little prayer with her before he leaves. If he forgets to do that, or forgets to tell her he loves her, he always drives back. It is 4:15 a.m. as he heads for Sago.
Anna was awakened earlier by a nightmare – of a big family funeral with an empty casket. The same bad dream has haunted her for several nights, and she is exhausted from little sleep.
As Randy drives the long way to the mine, the storm clouds cross the Ohio River from the west and the Tug Fork and Big Sandy from the south. Five miles below this cresting wave, the movements of men and trucks are but fireflies in the woods.
At 5:45 am, the “one left” and “two left” crews, a dozen men each, are suiting up in the shower house of the Sago Mine, a small, 148-miner coal operation, one of a dozen mines owned by privately held International Coal Group. If you’ve worked the mines, you know the routine: Your hard hat, tool belt, boots, and emergency breathing gear are locked high in a steel basket, one basket per miner. You take off your street clothes and put on a rental uniform and your gear. You head over to the dispatcher’s trailer to get your lamp, which clips to the square block on the front of your hard hat. You move the brass tag with your name on it to the inside section of the control board. You buy a cup of coffee from the vending machine.
You nod to the mine dispatcher through his window, and you trudge down the boardwalk into the pit – the shallow quarry where a curved metal canopy frames the mine portal. From the outside it looks like a storage shed. Narrow rail tracks lead inside. You climb aboard a “mantrip” electric shuttle.
The dozen men of the Two Left crew go down first, as they have the farthest to travel. Randy, 26, is the youngest of them. Eight of the men are in their 50s. Everyone is talking about that night’s Sugar Bowl game, which will feature the West Virginia Mountaineers from an hour’s drive up the road in Morgantown. Lightning begins to pop, and rain falls suddenly and hard just as they go under.
That wild ride into the Sago Mine – no falling-apart amusement park has one better. You get inside your beat-up mantrip and down you go. The mantrip’s a squashed peanut of a vehicle, with a low, open center where the driver sits. He can swing around in his seat to go in either direction, as there is no way to turn the vehicle around underground. The low cabins, fore and aft, hold six to eight men each and have wire-grid openings for windows.
The first steep grade is slippery with winter ice. You buck back and forth and always worry that you might fly off the haphazard tracks, which happens often enough. You clutch your lunch pail. There is a black hole ahead, pulling you down. When the tracks finally level off, you hit the fast curves, clickety-click.
You make the last curve, and then it’s up a little underground hill and straight ahead, a bit less than two bumpy miles to go. You are in a drift mine, so named because the coal layer drifts right out the side of the mountain, and you just follow it in, mining as you go. At Sago, you go a good 300 vertical feet down, and it’s coal all the way.
There are two left turns off the main tunnels. The second dogleg, Two Left, a section of eight tunnels running parallel to each other, extends about three-quarters of a mile. Right at that junction the nine main tunnels are sealed off ahead with lightweight fiber blocks. (To get the idea of all the parallel tunnels, imagine drawing a picture of the mine on the ground with a garden rake.) Beyond those seal walls is a recently abandoned section the size of four Carnegie Halls. It is a waiting bomb.
The section was sealed off a couple of weeks earlier because too much water was coming in, too much methane, and the roof kept falling. One man was seriously injured in a collapse six months earlier. Then a six-foot-thick, 100-foot-long piece of the roof came down a month after that, luckily missing the workers. Methane is filling the section at a rate of about 14,000 cubic feet a day. It needs only 14 days to reach the 5 percent concentration needed to be explosive, which is exactly the time it has had. A few more days and it will be too rich to blow and thus forever inert. You might think they would give a mine a little time to itself during that dangerous time, but MSHA, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, doesn’t require that, which means it doesn’t happen.At 6:26 a.m. the mine’s superintendent, Jeff Toler, 42, nephew of Randy’s current foreman Junior Toler, is on the office phone with dispatcher Bill “Flea” Chisolm, 47. Flea, the sole black man at Sago, is describing the storm outside his window when a monster lightning strike very nearby sends a loud pop through the phone lines – enough to make Flea toss down the receiver with a “Damn!”
In the same instant, right across Sago Road from the mine and next to the Sago Baptist Church, Clifford and Victoria Rice are nearly bounced out of bed by a deep boom. Two windows break. And then the earth rolls beneath them. Something is happening.
The sealed area of the tunnel – 4 million cubic feet loaded with methane – has just exploded.
At the far end of the mine, where the Two Left crew is already at work, Randy McCloy is readying his big Fletcher bolter when he hears the boom in the distance. A hot wind rushes through. He shuts his eyes to it. His ears ring. All 12 men quickly gather in the bright lights near the electrical shed, the “power center,” where the 7,200-volt main line branches to the big machines.
“Did you all hear that?” asks Junior Toler. “Well, that was an explosion.” He says it not because anyone requires an explanation, but because he is the foreman and it needs saying. Here it is, the moment you’ve prayed against 10,000 times.
Junior tries to call Flea, but the Two Left phone is dead.
“Get your lunch buckets, and let’s get out,” Junior says calmly.
What he said, and what happened next in the Two Left section, are from the smoked memories of Randy McCloy.
Before the hot wind found randy and the two left crew, it hit the men of One Left, still in the main tunnels. They are closer than any others to the explosion, save fire boss Terry Helms, who was right at the junction next to the sealed area, powering up a conveyor belt. A week earlier another fire boss, John Boni, had noticed a leak in the seal walls. It wasn’t too big. He reported it, but nothing was done. The fact that Terry threw the switch to the conveyer belt right then, at the moment of explosion, would later be pronounced a coincidence, which it might have been. But then again, the switch tended to throw off a lot of sparks. Maybe that, combined with the methane leaking into the junction, caused a small explosion that ignited the larger one.
Or maybe thunder from the storm passing over the mountains shook the ground enough to knock a piece of ceiling off. Falling roof rocks can spark against the bolts and mesh. Or maybe, as scientists at the esteemed Sandia Labs in New Mexico would later theorize, mammoth lightning bolts (they were positively charged, making them many times more powerful than normal, negatively charged lightning) might have created an electromagnetic wave through the ground. The abandoned area had a cable running through the middle, despite rules against this, and that could have picked up the charge, turning it into a giant spark plug.
But God and only God will ever know for certain. All that is known in this first moment is that the mountain is alive.
The One Left crew, on their way in on the mantrip, had stopped for a moment to throw a rail switch when the section blew. A violent blast of hot air and debris hit the men, with rock shot stinging through their heavy clothes and ripping into their skin.
The One Left crew foreman is Owie Jones, Randy’s old foreman and the brother of Jesse Jones on Randy’s crew. Owie is up in the driver’s cockpit, and the blast blows him headlong out of the vehicle.
The explosion pulverizes the seal walls, blasts through a cement block wall, and then through another cement block wall. It picks up a 1,500-pound mantrip charger and sends it tumbling toward the men. That knocks loose a 26-foot beam that comes their way too. Tons of grit, gravel, coal dust, smoke, and soot roar down upon them. They tuck their heads down hard and wait to see if this is it.
The long minutes are probably only about 10 seconds. The wind stops. The big debris hasn’t hit them.
The One Left men are thick with soot. Their hard hats are cracked. They are bleeding under layers of oily-smelling dust and mud.
“What the fuck was that?” somebody yells.
“The mine’s just blew up!” another answers.
They work their way out of the mantrip and swim into the darkness and heat. Limping and carrying one another, they begin the long trudge out. When his crew seems safe Owie turns around and heads back to try to find Jesse, his brother, in Two Left. He is soon joined by managers Jeff Toler and Dick Wilfong, who have raced in on a mantrip. On foot now, they will explore together until the smoke is too much.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.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.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.
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.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.From outside the command center the news has jumped across the Buckhannon River to some of the relatives waiting at the Sago Baptist Church. A man bursts up to the front of the church, shouting, “They’re alive!”
Everyone is instantly on their feet, pressing their hands to their mouths or clenching their hair or one another’s shoulders. Hollering and joyful screaming begin to swirl around the room until everybody is caught up in the great dance. Anna McCloy looks around for Ben Hatfield, the mine president. He had told them, “If you don’t hear it from me, don’t believe it.” He is nowhere in sight, but so many people are cheering that something must be happening. The church bells start to clang. Anna gives herself up to the joy and starts to dance. She runs outside to be closer to the mine and maybe see the men just dancing, dancing over the bridge. And why not? For the Lord is merciful! Praise God! Praise Jesus! It is shouted everywhere.
West Virginia governor Joe Manchin corners Anna in the narrow vestibule as she leaves the church and asks her what on earth is happening. She tells him. He starts crying and stoops to hug her. “I told you miracles happen in West Virginia!” he says. He says it to everyone he sees. He calls the command center, and the people around him see him listening with a smile. He gives everyone a thumbs-up.
Family members begin moving outdoors; the walls cannot contain their excitement. In the bitter-cold midnight hour the 200 or so sing “How Great Thou Art.”
At 11:49 an excited man runs up to CNN’s Anderson Cooper, shouting, “We got 12 alive!” as Cooper broadcasts from the gravel lot below the church. CNN cannot confirm the report, and says it cannot, but Cooper starts describing the celebration, which seems to speak for itself. Millions of Americans are also celebrating and can now go to bed happy after watching days and nights of tense coverage.
“It is a miracle; there’s no other explanation,” the governor, soon across the road in the command center, tells several major news organizations by phone.
Half of America’s daily newspapers will have the miracle story on their front pages the next morning.
At the junction to the main tunnel the rescuers come stumbling exhausted out of Two Left with Randy barely alive on the stretcher. The men there have been watching them approach, watching the mad swirl of their distant cap lamps, and are now cheering to welcome them.
“Where are they? Where’s the rest of ’em?” the men shout.
Jim Klug and his team suddenly understand that the word got out real wrong.
“The rest of them is dead,” one of Klug’s men says.
Randy finally gets pure oxygen and is moved to a mantrip.
Klug gets on the mine phone to Rick Marlow in the command center.
“Listen, we got 11 items,” Klug says.
Tim Martin, one of the men who put together the code in response to press leaks, is standing near Marlow in the command center and hears this. Martin suddenly feels ill; he knows what Klug is saying. He yells for the room, still in full celebration, to quiet down.
“Items!” Martin shouts. “They said they got 11 items!”
The room finally dies down.
“Forget the code,” Marlow tells Klug. “What do you mean?”
“There’s 11 deceased people,” Klug replies. “One alive.”
Marlow repeats it to the room. It is 12:23 a.m. There is silence. The half-hour-long party ends in one thickened moment.
Soon the rescue team is out of the tunnel. Randy is loaded into an ambulance and sped away. Klug and his men stumble to the shower house. Klug scrubs his hands. They all do. They have dealt with a grisly scene. They are feeling the weight of the miscommunication. The one corner cut by command center, the 1,000-foot maximum between fresh air bases (and thus phone communications), had been a bad one.
EMTs are sent in to confirm the deaths and ID the bodies. That will take another few hours, during which time the command center and governor are silent to the world, and the little church rocks on in high hallelujah.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.
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