Sunday, September 2, 2007

Coal town struggles to move on a year after Sago Mine disaster

Coal town struggles to move on a year after Sago Mine disaster
Sunday, December 24, 2006
By Dan Majors, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. -- Townspeople crowded around the Upshur County Courthouse early Wednesday evening, singing Christmas carols and raising their voices in joyful praise. A group of youngsters, wearing robes and carrying props, jogged across the small lawn to take their places in a live Nativity scene.
It's the same patch of grass where 12 white crosses, each bearing the name of a man who died in the Sago Mine disaster, were erected back in January.

But the crosses are long gone.
It's Christmastime in Buckhannon, and most of the people in this tiny coal-mining town have been busy with their traditional holiday routines -- shopping, wrapping and cooking. The homes are decorated as they always are at this time of year.
"People are in the stores everywhere," said 1st Sgt. Rick Holley, a district commander with the West Virginia State Troopers. "It's a pretty good Christmas."
The wreaths that are displayed around the town are cheery circles of evergreen tied with bright red bows. The signs along the roadsides offer holiday wishes -- or holiday bargains -- and the times of the children's Christmas pageant.
There was a time, however, just about a year ago, when the scene was very different. The wreaths were made of black ribbons, and the signs all carried the same sad message: "Pray for our miners."

That was during the first week of the year, in the hours after the Jan. 2 explosion that trapped 13 coal miners deep underground and brought the spotlight of the nation burning onto Buckhannon.

'It was a bad scene'The Rev. Ed McDaniels, pastor of the Christian Fellowship Church located between Buckhannon and nearby Sago and the man who organizes the annual live Nativity scene, was one of the local leaders who responded to the tragedy.
He comforted the miners' relatives as they waited for news of their loved ones inside the Sago Baptist Church and made sure that each family was assigned a local pastor "to shepherd them as best they could" through the ordeal.
He was there when word came that searchers had found one of the miners dead. He was there a few hours later when the church bells started ringing and people praised God because someone said the other 12 missing miners had been found alive.

And he was there nearly three hours after that, when the families learned that the initial reports had been wrong and that only one miner had survived and the songs of joy had turned to mournful wails and agonized curses.

"When [mine officials] found out that all of them were dead except one, they thought a plan would be that they would tell it to the ministers and the ministers then would tell it to the families," Mr. McDaniels said. "But that never materialized, which I'm certainly glad that it didn't. I'd have probably said 'I'm not telling them. In fact, I'm going over the hill.' "
Mr. McDaniels said he and the other ministers, including the Rev. Wease Day, pastor of the Sago Baptist Church, did what they could to comfort the families.
Then, when he learned that the bodies of the dead miners were to be transported to a makeshift morgue on the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, he headed over there. He walked into the campus chapel and asked a group of police officers how they planned to deal with the families.

"The response was 'We don't know,' " he said. "There was no organization. They didn't even have the names of the miners. It turned out, the only person who had a list of the people underground was me."
It was a hand-scrawled list of 13 names he had made back at the Sago Baptist Church as he went from one distressed relative to another during the early hours of the disaster.
At the morgue, it was used as a checklist.
"It was so disarrayed, some relatives didn't even know if they could come identify the bodies," Mr. McDaniels said. "The families all arrived at different times. And the bodies came in at different times; they didn't all come, 12 at a time."

As the family members arrived at the chapel, Mr. McDaniels welcomed them and prayed with them. He also asked if they would like him to organize a memorial service for all 12 miners. With their unanimous consent, he did so, a Jan. 15 service in the college chapel that was attended by 1,400 people, including West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin.

The gathering was called

"A Service for Honor, Hope and Healing."

'A very trying time'Since then, Mr. McDaniels has done his best to give solace to the families. He was a leader in the effort to erect a memorial of dark stone tablets near the Sago Baptist Church. He continued to call and visit them.
Over the course of the year, however, while the Buckhannon community recovered from the tragedy, the families struggled, not only with the loss of their loved ones but with what many of them call "a lack of closure." Every couple of weeks, it seemed, the mine tragedy was back in the headlines and reporters were calling on the telephone asking for their reactions to the latest news.

"They haven't been able to go back to their lives," Mr. McDaniels said of the families. "They're still in the news; they're still having difficulties."
The news media documented the slow recovery of Sago survivor Randal McCloy Jr. as well as the months of investigation into what caused the explosion. International Coal Group, the company that owns Sago Mine, released its "initial findings" in March and then reopened the mine.

West Virginia officials conducted public hearings on the tragedy in May. Two men who worked at Sago committed suicide, one in August and one in September. And the entire year has been scarred with coal mine fatalities, making it one of the most deadly years in recent memory.
This month, West Virginia officials released a "final" report on the cause of the explosion -- twice. And both times, family members angrily expressed their frustration at its conclusion: Lightning caused the methane gas explosion, but officials can't explain how the lightning traveled more than two miles from where it struck ground to where the explosion started.

"We go on every day with our life the way we have for the past year," said Pam Campbell, sister-in-law of Marty Bennett, one of the miners who died. "You know, we're facing our first Christmas without our loved ones. We're facing the new year, we're facing the anniversary of the explosion.
"We basically continue to fight for what we feel needs to be done for the rest of these coal miners in our area. Because, as you know, coal mining is a very, very big part of this town. We need coal mining, but we need safe coal mines."

John Groves said Christmas was a time for him and his brother, Jerry, who died in the mine, to join their seven brothers and sisters for Christmas at their mother's home in Cleveland, W.Va., about 25 miles from Buckhannon. For his family, he said, everything's changed.
He has sent his mother to Florida with relatives "to be away from the anniversary, keep her away from the televisions and the newspapers. This has been a very trying time."

Most calls to the miners' families go unanswered. One man, the son of one of the dead miners, emerged from last week's meeting with West Virginia mining officials and angrily confronted reporters gathered outside, demanding that they "stop pressuring these people" and physically threatening a photographer.

"The problem is these folks are pretty much all talked out," said attorney Paul Cranston, who represents three of the families. "I think the emotions are running pretty high, this time of year in particular, and it's probably not a real good time to talk to them. [It's] the first Christmas without their fathers, their husbands ... and some of the people ... they kind of just want to be with their family. What's left of them."

Even Mr. McDaniels said he has seen less of the families lately.
"I've kind of backed off of all this stuff with the mines and the suing and the reports. I don't have time for that. It's out of my league," he said. "To comfort and console and to help, that was something that I wanted to do.
"There for a while, for the first two weeks of January, the world stood still for us, to mourn with, to hurt with, to cry with these Sago miners [and their families]. But I had to go back to teaching school, I had to go back to ministering to my church."

Upshur County Sheriff Virgil D. Miller said this Christmas seems to be more somber than past ones. "It's kind of a down year," he said.
"Maybe it's just me, but you kind of get the feeling that people want to move on. But it's still with us. Seventy-five, 80 percent of the people in this community knew someone who was in that mine."

He noted that even amid the holiday decorations, you can still see all sorts of signs of tribute to the community's lost miners -- if you look for them. Bumper stickers, T-shirts, signs in store windows. They're there.
"We still have decals on our cruisers," he said. "And I've even thought, you know, 'Well, when would be a good time to take those off the cars?' Probably after the anniversary. We'll move on.
"But we'll still remember."

First published at PG NOW on December 24, 2006 at 12:00 am