TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. — January 2, 2006 will always be a haunting day in the history of Upshur County, W.Va. An underground explosion at the Sago Mine owned by International Coal Group left 13 coal miners trapped and sent the entire world into a round-the-clock vigil.
“Details we have right now is there was a shift change going on with a group going in and a group coming out,” said then-Gov. Joe Manchin on MetroNews Talkline, which was originating from Atlanta site of the Sugar Bowl where WVU was preparing to take on Georgia. “The group that was going in was able to retreat and get out the group coming out we have not heard from.”
Rescue teams from across the Appalachian Region headed toward Upshur County. Worried about secondary explosions, rescue teams cautiously reentered the Sago mine after a period of ventilation. Readings still indicated a heavy presence of carbon monoxide.
“We can only speculate at this point,” said ICG President Ben Hatfield at the time. “The common school of thought might be they tried to find an area that was not yet contaminated by the carbon monoxide and smoke and tried to maintain that environment.”
Crews began a slow and methodical search into the mine while families and friends held vigil in a tiny church near the mine entrance. As the search continued the worldwide news media arrived and the trapped West Virginia miners became an around- the-clock news lead.
Search teams located the body of one miner along with the mantrip the 13 missing miners had been riding. There was also evidence the men had deployed self-rescuers to provide breathable air. It would later be determined half of those SCSRs didn’t work.
More than a day after the explosion, the missing miners were located, all but one were dead. However, as the team attempted to communicate with the surface the wrong information leaked out. A rumor spread like wildfire through the praying group and onto national news broadcast that a dozen of the missing miners were alive. Hours later, the bitter truth was an even heavier blow to those who had prayed for a miracle.
“The only confirmed survivor is Randal L. McCloy, Jr. The eleven remaining miners in the barricade structure were determined by medical technicians on the rescue team to have already deceased,” Hatfield said in a tense news conference near the mine. “That information spread like wildlife because it had come from the command center, but it was bad information.”
Although it was never fully determined how the miscommunication got out, investigators theorized a broadcast over an emergency radio may have fueled the false rumor. The investigation later identified the cause of the explosion was lightening striking a steel pipe on a nearby mountaintop. The pipe was for ventilation from a section of the mine which had been sealed off. The lightning bolt traveled deep into the sealed mine and set off built up methane gas with enough force to blow out the seals and expose those working underground to the toxic carbon monoxide.
The miners reacted exactly as they had been trained and went to the mine face to deploy a rescue shelter. Ironically, if they had turned the opposite way and walked out of the mine they may have all survived.
The Sago accident along with a fatal mine accident only a few weeks later led to the first changes in federal mining laws in decades. Among the improvements were more self-rescuers stored underground at strategic points, underground wireless communication, and engineering changes in underground seals.