TAYLOR COUNTY, W.Va. — Ten years after the Sago Mine Disaster, the sole survivor of the Two Left Crew is living a quiet life in Taylor County. “He moves a little slower, but he’s so strong,” said Aly Goodwin Gregg, spokesperson for the family of Randal McCloy, Jr.
Goodwin Gregg visited Randy, Anna and their six kids, Randal, 14, Nicole, 14, Dustin, 12, Isabel, 11, Isaac, 8, and Shelby, 7, at their Simpson home earlier this week.
“Randy is naturally very shy, is very, very quiet and kind of pensive in the way he speaks and that hasn’t changed,” Goodwin Gregg said on Wednesday’s MetroNews “Talkline.”
“But, if you did not know his story, if you met him on the street, you would never believe where he was ten years ago.”
Ten years ago this Saturday, McCloy was one of 29 West Virginia coal miners who went to work underground at International Coal Group’s Sago Mine in Upshur County.
Shortly before 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 2, 2006, a methane ignition in a recently sealed area of the mine triggered an explosion that blew out those seals, sending smoke, dust, debris and carbon monoxide into the working sections of the mine.
Investigators with the Mine Safety and Health Administration later determined a lightning strike was the ignition source.
One coal miner was killed the initial blast, 16 others escaped and 12 miners who could not get out put up a curtain and awaited rescue, as they’d been trained to do.
When mine rescuers made it to the trapped miners 41 hours later, all but McCloy, who was 26 years old at the time, had died from carbon monoxide asphyxiation.
McCloy was pulled from the Sago Mine on Jan. 4 with kidney, lung, liver and heart damage and spent weeks in a coma in Morgantown where he was treated for severe brain injuries.
“Dr. Julian Bailes was at West Virginia University Hospitals at the time and the diagnosis was grim,” Goodwin Gregg recalled.
“They showed CAT scans and they said, ‘This is how a brain should look. You see that the carbon monoxide poisoning has eaten away at the white matter. I don’t know that he’ll ever be the same.'”
She said Anna McCloy never lost faith. “Anna looked at everybody around the table and said, ‘He’s in there. He’s in there. Randy’s coming back to me.'”
Anna McCloy was right. Her husband was able to return home to Taylor County by Spring 2006. Throughout what has been called his “miraculous” recovery and to this day, Goodwin Gregg said the McCloys have relied on their faith.
“They are very protective of the other families and they’re very protective of what they have survived and what they had done,” she said.
The McCloys declined an invitation to appear on MetroNews “Talkline,” but did release the following statement on Wednesday ahead of the 10th Anniversary of the Sago Mine Disaster on Jan. 2:
“The date of January 2nd is difficult for me and my family every year. My wife, Anna, and I think of the families and loved ones of my co-workers and friends who were the victims of the Sago Mine Disaster, and we pray for God’s grace to find them and comfort them as they remember.
“After all these years, I do not understand why I was spared, but I praise God every day, for He is amazing. I truly believe it was the power of Love from my wife and our family, as much as it was the power of prayer by so many people throughout West Virginia, across the country and around the world. Your kindness and the generosity in your prayers has always meant so much to me, and will be with me for the rest of my life.
“Today, Anna and I have six beautiful children and we are grateful for our life together. I could never begin to explain how grateful I am to be here to experience the joy of this family. While the miracle of my unexplained survival was 10 years ago, I will never – ever – forget the men with whom I worked who did not survive. And I carry them with me in my heart every day.”
THE MINERS KILLED
– Tom Anderson, 39, was a shuttle car operator on the Two Left section of the Sago Mine, moving coal from the area of the working face to the conveyor belt. He had 10 years in the mines. He lived in Rock Cave, Upshur County. Married to Lynda Hyre Anderson, he was the father of four sons, Caleb (deceased), Randy, Mitchell, and Thomas Isaac.
– Jerry Lee Groves, 56 was a roof bolter, with nearly 30 years of mining experience. He lived in Cleveland, Webster County. Married to Deborah A. Groves, he was the father of a daughter, Shelly Rose.
– James Bennett, 61, was a shuttle car operator with more than 25 years of mining experience. He lived in Volga, Barbour County. Married to Lily Foster Bennett, he was the father of a daughter, Ann Merideth, and a son, John. The eldest of the Two Left crew, he had been planning to retire in 2006.
– George Junior Hamner, 54, was a shuttle car operator, with 28 years of mining experience. He grew up on a farm near the site of the Sago Mine and owned a small cattle farm in Glady Fork, Upshur County. Married to Deborah Hamner, he was the father of a daughter, Sara Bailey.
– Marty Bennett, 51, was a continuous-miner operator, running the machine that cut coal from the face. He had 29 years of mining experience. He lived in Buckhannon, Upshur County. Married to Judy Ann Lantz Bennett, he was the father of a son, Russell, who also worked at the Sago Mine.
– Terry Helms, 50, was a fireboss and beltman. He had 29 years of mining experience. He lived in Newburg, Preston County. The father of a daughter, Amber, and a son, Nick, from his previous marriage, he was engaged to be married to Virginia Moore.
– Jesse L. Jones, 44, was a roof bolter, with 16 years of mining experience. He lived in Pickens, Randolph County. He was the father of two daughters, Sarah and Katelyn. His brother, Owen, was the foreman of the One Left crew on the morning of January 2, and tried to reach Jesse after the explosion.
– Fred G. Ware, Jr., 59, was a continuous-miner operator, with 37 years of mining experience. He lived in Tallmansville, Upshur County, just across the river from the Sago Mine. He was the father of a daughter, Peggy Cohen, and a son, Darrell.
– David Lewis, 28, was a roof bolter, with about two years of mining experience. He lived in Thornton, Taylor County. Trained as a diesel mechanic, he went to work at Sago so that his wife, Samantha, could stay home with their three daughters, Kayla, Shelby, and Kelsie, while she completed a master’s degree in health care administration.
– Jackie Weaver, 51, was the section electrician on Two Left, with 26 years of mining experience. He lived in Philippi, Barbour County. Married to Charlotte Poe Weaver, he was the father of a daughter, Rebecca, and a son, Justin.
– Martin Toler, Jr., 51, was the section foreman on Two Left, with 32 years of mining experience. He lived in Flatwoods, Braxton County. Married to Mary Lou Toler, he was the father of a daughter, Courtney, and a son, Chris, who had worked with his father in another mine.
– Marshall Winans, 50, was a utility man and scoop operator, with 10 years of mining experience. He lived in Belington, the Talbott Community, Barbour County. Married to Pamela Pharis Winans, he was the father of three daughters, Tiffany, Mandy, and Holly.
A miscommunication was blamed for initial inaccurate reports to the surface that the 12 miners had all been found alive. Several hours passed before family members were told of the mistake.
On Apr. 26, 2006, McCloy sent the following letter to family members and others who knew the men who died at the Sago Mine detailing what happened underground after the explosion at the Tallmansville mine site:
“About three weeks before the explosion that occurred on Jan. 2, 2006, toward the end of our shift, Junior Toler and I found a gas pocket while drilling a bolt hole in the mine roof. Our detector confirmed the presence of methane. We immediately shut down the roof bolter, and the incident was reported up the line to our superiors. I noticed the following day that the gas leak had been plugged with glue normally used to secure the bolts.
“The explosion happened soon after the day shift arrived at the mine face on January 2, right after we got out of the man-trip. I do not recall whether I had started work, nor do I have any memory of the blast. I do remember that the mine filled quickly with fumes and thick smoke, and that breathing conditions were nearly unbearable.
“The first thing we did was activate our rescuers, as we had been trained. At least four of the rescuers did not function. I shared my rescuer with Jerry Groves, while Junior Toler, Jesse Jones and Tom Anderson sought help from others. There were not enough rescuers to go around.
“We then tried to return to the man-trip, yelling to communicate through the thick smoke. The air was so bad that we had to abandon our escape attempt and return to the coal rib, where we hung a curtain to try to protect ourselves. The curtain created an enclosed area of about 35 feet.
“We attempted to signal our location to the surface by beating on the mine bolts and plates. We found a sledgehammer, and for a long time, we took turns pounding away. We had to take off the rescuers in order to hammer as hard as we could. This effort caused us to breathe much harder. We never heard a responsive blast or shot from the surface.
“We eventually gave out and quit our attempts at signaling, sitting down behind the curtain on the mine floor, or on buckets or cans that some of us found. The air behind the curtain grew worse, so I tried to lie as low as possible and take shallow breaths. While methane does not have an odor like propane and is considered undetectable, I could tell that it was gassy. We all stayed together behind the curtain from that point on, except for one attempt by Junior Toler and Tom Anderson to find a way out. The heavy smoke and fumes caused them to quickly return. There was just so much gas.
“We were worried and afraid, but we began to accept our fate. Junior Toler led us all in the Sinners Prayer. We prayed a little longer, then someone suggested that we each write letters to our loved ones. I wrote a letter to Anna and my children. When I finished writing, I put the letter in Jackie Weaver’s lunch box, where I hoped it would be found.
“As time went on, I became very dizzy and lightheaded. Some drifted off into what appeared to be a deep sleep, and one person sitting near me collapsed and fell off his bucket, not moving. It was clear that there was nothing I could do to help him. The last person I remember speaking to was Jackie Weaver, who reassured me that if it was our time to go, then God’s will would be fulfilled. As my trapped co-workers lost consciousness one by one, the room grew still and I continued to sit and wait, unable to do much else. I have no idea how much time went by before I also passed out from the gas and smoke, awaiting rescue.
“I cannot begin to express my sorrow for my lost friends and my sympathy for those they left behind. I cannot explain why I was spared while the others perished. I hope that my words will offer some solace to the miners’ families and friends who have endured what no one should ever have to endure.”