January 1, 2018 - It was Jan. 2, 2006, and most people in West Virginia were thinking about the Mountaineers upcoming game with the Georgia Bulldogs in the Sugar Bowl in Atlanta. Hoppy Kercheval hosted MetroNews “Talkline” live in Atlanta covering the game and then Gov. Joe Manchin was his guest. Manchin got a notification during the “Talkline” appearance and broke the news to West Virginia.
Randal McCloy, Jr. and his wife, Anna, have said Jan. 2 is a ‘difficult’ date each year.
“Details we have right now is there was a shift change going on with a group going in and a group coming out.,” Manchin reported on MetroNews. “The group that was going in was able to retreat and get out the group coming out we have not heard from.”
It was the first information about an underground explosion which left 14 coal miners unaccounted for at the Sago Mine in Upshur County. The mine, owned by International Coal Group, then became the focal point of a world-wide round the clock vigil for the next three days.
Mine rescue teams were dispatched and went through all required protocols to begin a search. Gas levels inside the mine from carbon monoxide confirmed an explosion. The search seemed agonizingly long as rescue teams methodically worked their way through the mine.
Rescue teams found discharged containers from the Self Contained Self Rescuers each miner is required to carry at all times underground. They were located at the site of the mantrip where the crew was believed to be heading out by. The discovery was confirmation at least some of the crew had survived the blast although one man was already found deceased in the search. Thirteen remained unaccounted for.
Search teams were confident the survivors had moved all the way to the mine’s face and created a barricade to await for rescue. The procedure was standard training for miners in emergency situations. However, reaching them was a slow process. When they finally found the missing crew at the face, 12 of the men were dead. Only Randall McCloy Jr. was alive.
But there was miscommunication from within the mine to the command center at the surface. The report of one man alive was misinterpreted that all of the men were alive and the errant news spread to the nearby Sago Baptist Church where family members had been anxiously waiting for hours. An hour later, State Police and then ICG President Ben Hatfield along with Governor Manchin had to deliver the tragic truth which turned the euphoria into anguish and anger.
During the following months several investigations into the incident concluded the explosion was caused when lightening struck a steel ventilation pipe on top of the mountain. A charge traveled through the pipe into a sealed off section of the mine below and the spark ignited methane which had collected. The blast blew out the mine seals and allowed deadly carbon monoxide to flood into the working area.
McCloy’s account to investigators revealed each miner died one by one, as their rescue oxygen ran out and many of the devices failed to function properly.
The disaster resulted in new regulations which called for underground rescue chambers in the coal mines along with caches of additional rescue air packs throughout an underground mine. It also called for rescue packs to be refreshed more frequently and greater attention paid to expiration dates.
McCloy survived and left the coal industry. Hatfield continued to work in the industry for other companies until he was tragically murdered in 2016 during a robbery in Mingo County. Manchin would go on to become U.S. Senator and be highly visible in two more high profile mining disasters in West Virginia at Aracoma in Logan County later in 2006 and Upper Big Branch in Raleigh County in 2010.
A memorial remembered the Sago miners.