Sago Anniversary: ‘This community will never heal’
When a dozen miners died in this small West Virginia town, many thought after the burial the healing would begin.
They were wrong.
Months after the explosion, investigations into its cause continued, federal and state hearings were held to determine what caused the tragedy, who was responsible, what led to the massive miscommunication snafu and how mine safety could be improved after the events of Jan. 2, 2006.
The hearings highlighted how lax mine safety was and the “cost-of-doing-business” attitude mine owners had toward fines.
Not long after the explosions, the safety record of the mine’s parent company — the International Coal Group (ICG) — was reported. In the two years before the explosions, the mine was issued more than 270 safety citations with the company paying $24,000 in fines, according to Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) data.
The investment firm that owned the company denied it put profits above safety. “We’ve never taken one penny out of the any company’s budget for safety,” Wilber Ross, ICG’s main owner, told the New York Times.
However, six weeks prior to the explosions, on Nov. 26, three major cave-ins occurred at the Sago mine. The following month, federal inspectors issued three serious citations violations concerning roof-control, the paper reported.
Testifying before Congress three weeks after the explosion, Ben Hatfield, ICG president and chief executive officer, said the company made major investments in safety. Since ICG took over the mine, he said, “our company has worked closely with federal and state regulators in an effort to make this mine as safe as possible.”
However, during an MSHA hearing there was some confusion over what company was actually responsibile for the mine. Anker West Virginia Mining was listed as the permittee for the mine. At the time of the hearing, Sago was a part of Wolf Run Mining Co., a subsidiary of Hunter Ridge Mining Co., which is part of ICG. ICG was formed in 2004 after Ross purchased a large part of Horizon Natural Resources while he operated Newcoal LLC.
Two days after the explosion the U.S. Secretary of Labor stated MSHA would start a full-scale investigation into the explosion, promising to “take the necessary steps to ensure this never happens again.”
MSHA issued a press release that day stating it was appointing an independent eight-member team to conduct the investigation. The release stated the team would examine what caused the explosion, the mine’s regulation compliance and the dissemination of information concerning the trapped miners.
Within a short period of time, the MSHA investigation was under attack. In 2004, the editor of Mine Safety and Health News reported that MSHA has clandestinely changed its Freedom of Information Act policy. The editor, Ellen Smith, reported that the Labor Department’s associate solicitor for mine safety and health disclosed “without public comment or input, MSHA secretly changed its long-standing policy of routinely releasing inspector notes under the Freedom of Information Act.”
After pressure from various members of Congress during the Sago investigation, including Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, MSHA rescinded the policy change. Transcripts of interviews with approximately 70 people involved in the Sago tragedy were finally released to the Charleston Gazette, who filed a FOIA request.
During interviews with ICG’s Vice President Sam Kitts, the Gazette reported, Kitts refused to answer questions surrounding the company’s investigation. His attorney, the paper reported, said Kitts was not authorized to answer questions about the investigation and he did not know who would be able to respond to such questions.
ICG also refused to release the company’s internal investigation to MSHA and the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, the paper reported. During the MSHA inquiry, ICG also solidly opposed the United Mine Workers of America from participating in the investigation, fearing the union’s influence on the outcome.
The U.S. Senate conducted two hearings into the mine explosion. The first was launched by the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
“The families of the Sago miners deserve to know what happened in that mine,” Byrd said in a press release. “Just as importantly, miners and their families across this country want to know that steps are being taken to prevent others from experiencing such pain.”
Testifying at the hearing, UMWA President Cecil Roberts said, “Unfortunately, what happened at Sago did not really surprise me. Indeed, the underground coal industry has experienced tragedies, as well as near tragedies, on a recurring basis.”
A transcript of his testimony shows that Roberts accused the George H.W. Bush administration of packing mine health and safety positions with industry insiders. “The most basic point I wish to make today is that as a nation and as an industry, we already posses the knowledge and the ability to prevent most of the deaths that are still occurring in the coal mining industry. What is needed is a real commitment by our government — in this case, MSHA — to do better.”
A second Senate hearing was headed by former Sen. Jay Rockefeller. Again, the aim was to find the cause of the explosions, but this time it was political. “We need to know why the administration thinks that it can carry out a policy where it is committing fewer and fewer resources to meet an industry that has more and more needs,” Rockefeller said in a statement. “We need congressional hearings not only so that we can determine what happened at Sago, but, more broadly, about the state of mine safety across West Virginia and across the county.”
The House of Representatives also conducted a hearing at the request of Capito. That hearing focused on whether Congress abdicated its oversight duties on worker safety issues and if the Bush administration filled worker safety agencies with industry leaders, something the UMWA contended for years during the administration done.
After the hearings, David G. Dry, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, enacted three rules to promote safety in underground mines. The first provided additional self-contained self-rescue devices for each miner in an underground storage area readily accessible in an emergency. The second was to install lifelines in all primary and alternative escape routes to help guide miners when visibility is dim. Finally, mines must notify MSHA within 15 minutes of an accident.
West Virginia held its own hearings headed by J. Davitt McAtteer, a former assistant secretary for MSHA during the Clinton administration. The three-day public hearing was emotionally charged.
“Can you tell the families what murdered our men?” asked Debbie Hamner, whose husband George, died in the tragedy, according to The Associated Press. “No one wants to answer.”
For more than 27 hours, dozens of people testified. Most of the blame was placed on ICG. In a tearful rage, Sarah Bailey, daughter of George Hamner, said “ICG neglect and lack of consideration for human life and safety had robbed me of a man who was dear to my heart. Their action have caused our house to be an empty space that can never be filled again.”
The company’s CEO Hatfield told the audience that there was nothing to warn mine management that an explosion was imminent. He continued, the AP reported, that ICG was “working tirelessly, using all resources available, to save your family members.”
ICG permanently closed the Sago mine in December 2008.
After the tragedy, the state legislature passed a bill drafted by Gov. Manchn creating a new mine emergency-response system and requiring coal companies to provide miners with additional emergency air supply, communication equipment and tracking devices. The bill was signed Jan. 27, 2006.
During the hearings in West Virginia, many family members wondered “How the hell did that happen?” More specifically, how could the communication between the rescue teams lead to family and friends being told their loved ones are alive and well?
Dr. Bill Ramsey, former state EMS medical director, said the biggest lesson learned from Sago is how vital accurate information and communications are. “It’s not uncommon in rescue situations for communication to be imperfect,” Ramsey said.
The snafu, many believe, was a simple miscommunication between the rescuers in the mines and those on the ground, a misunderstanding on how many were alive.
In the end, Ramsey said, the rescue teams were doing all they could during a very tense and emotional two days. “Their efforts were heroic,” he said.
On Sundays the Sago Baptist Church is still used for services. Church goers still park on the edge of Sago Road as there is only a small parking lot. While things appear normal, said Upshur County’s former Sheriff Virgil Miller, it’s not. “This community will never heal after the explosion,” he said. “It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years. But generations to come will never heal.”