15 Years Ago, Sago Mine Disaster Claimed 12 Lives Raised Questions on Mining Safety
January 2, 2021 - Fifteen years ago Saturday morning, on Jan. 2, 2006, 15 miners were entering the Sago Mine, located about 12 miles outside the city, to start their shift.
Within minutes, their lives and those of their families were changed forever.
An explosion rocked the mine and much of the surrounding area, leaving the fate of the miners in doubt.
Two of the miners, who were dropped off closer to the entrance before the others went deeper into the mine, survived and made their way to safety after the explosion.
The names and faces of the miners who lost their lives on January 2, 2006 are memorialized at a location reserved near the Sago Mine and Sago Baptist Church.
Photo: Melissa Toothman
At the base of the memorial for the miners who died following an explosion at Sago Mine, are various added trinkets and memorabilia.
Photo: Melissa Toothman
Outside, emergency responders quickly assembled and began mounting a rescue strategy.
However, they were struggling to gather enough information to determine how best to stage the rescue. Communication inside the mine was a major problem but dedicated responders worked in an attempt to rescue the men.
About 41 hours after the explosion, rescuers reached the miners in the early morning hours of Jan. 4, 2006.
Faulty communication led to rumors that all 13 miners were found alive, which was reported by the national media that had camped out at the site since the explosion. That announcement set off a celebration by family and well-wishers.
Because of the late hour, it also led to a number of newspapers and other media outlets to report the wrong information the next morning.
However, a short time after the initial announcement, then-Gov. Joe Manchin had to break the news to the family and the public that only one miner was found alive.
Randal McCloy, a miner from Taylor County, had survived.
Trapped with him in the mine were Marty Bennett, Marshall Cade Winans, Fred G. “Bear” Ware Jr., David William Lewis, Terry Helms, James A. Bennett, Thomas “Tom” Paul Anderson, Jerry Lee Groves, Jesse L. Jones, Martin Toler Jr., Jackie Lynn Weaver and George Junior Hamner.
The men wrote messages to their families on the walls of the mine. One message, “We’ll see you on the other side,” also appears on the memorial that is now located near the site.
McCloy has said that four of the miners were experiencing difficulties with their Self-Contained Self-Rescuers (portable oxygen devices), according to the investigative overview.
The cause of the explosion was never clearly determined. Some believe a lightning strike from an unusual heavy thunderstorm that passed through the area that morning, touched off an explosion of the methane gas in the mine.
Some believe the mine's ventilation was faulty and that methane and built up coal dust were to blame.
On the eve of the 15th anniversary, Manchin, now West Virginia's senior U.S. Senator, recalled the tragedy:
“Fifteen years ago, we lost 12 brave coal miners who went to work at the Sago mine and never returned home to their families," Manchin said in a prepared statement.
"As a state, we came together after the tragedy to grieve the loss of our fellow West Virginians and support the families and loved ones of those lost.
"After the disaster, West Virginia worked hard to pass legislation that improved safety standards for our miners who mined the coal that made America the leader we are today.
"The Sago disaster anniversary reminds us that coal miners risk their lives every day to power our nation, and we must prioritize their health, safety, and security.
"I will continue to fight to make sure no family suffers this terrible loss ever again. Gayle and I will keep the families and loved ones of those twelve brave West Virginians in our thoughts and prayers.”
U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito also reflected on the tragedy and coal miners' contributions to the country as she tweeted Saturday morning:
"This anniversary is a heartbreaking reminder of how West Virginia miners put themselves at risk everyday to power this country. We should never forget all that our miners have sacrificed and done for West Virginia families and communities.