Thursday, January 19, 2006



"Tears for Twelve Mountaineers"
c. 2006 Rod Ice
All rights reserved

Note to Readers: What follows is an intensely personal reflection on a recent news event. I beg your indulgence while considering this subject with reflective prose.
For this writer, the small village of Chandlersville remains a sacred patch of Buckeye soil. Located in farming country southeast of Zanesville, it is the place where
my own formal education began. As a student at the local brick schoolhouse, I learned basic principles that proved to be useful for over forty years. But study that took place outside of the classroom was just as valuable. While growing in awareness and proficiency, I absorbed the culture of this gentle place. The cynicism and intrigue of more populous regions did not exist in Chandlersville. Faith in God was interwoven with a sense of duty to the greater community. Loyalty to family, and the land itself, was universal.
As I became an adult, this bond with those close to the soil remained. My personal odyssey revealed that Western Pennsylvania and Central West Virginia were very much like my beloved, rural home in Ohio. This triangular region seemed to glow with steadfast traditions. While coastal states wandered toward mayhem, in the heartland, there was no social divide. Everyone, regardless of color, creed, or political persuasion, had the same responsibilities. No one had to be taught that good citizens should take care of their own, and each other. It was their way of living.
Echoes of this sturdy logic came from reports of the recent mine disaster in Upshur County, West Virginia. As a local event, it quickly grew into national importance with coverage from all of the 24-hour TV news networks. But in personal terms, the accident was undeniably close to home. First, because those involved were from this familiar, friendly region of America. And second, because the coal site was only a short distance away from my parents’ abode in nearby Philippi.
Barely a day after the WVU football team had defeated Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, residents of the Mountaineer State were plunged into dark introspection. Reality had begun to set in that the crew was unlikely to have survived. Governor Joe Manchin III was sober in his assessment: "The odds are against us because of the air quality… (but) …we believe in miracles in West Virginia." Yet early reports caused celebration – cheers of ‘Twelve Alive!’ could be heard in front of the Sago Church where families had gathered. And then, in the early hours of Wednesday morning, there was a shocking reversal. Officials reluctantly announced ‘One miner in critical condition; twelve deceased’ to the crowd of restless souls. The heartbreaking impact of this announcement was unbearable. Charleston Gazette writer Dave Gustafson reported the story with great professionalism:
"TALLMANSVILLE — Only one of the 13 miners trapped inside an Upshur County mine survived, family members said at 3 a.m. Wednesday. Family members had thought for three hours that 12 of the 13 had survived. International Coal Group Chief Executive Officer Ben Hatfield told the families that only one miner, Randal McCloy, had survived the explosion. Hatfield told the families gathered at the Sago Baptist Church that ‘there had been a lack of communication, that what we were told was wrong and that only one survived,’ said John Groves, whose brother Jerry Groves was one of the trapped miners.
At that point, chaos broke out in the church and a fight started, Groves said. ‘The initial report from the rescue team to the command center indicated multiple survivors,’ Hatfield said during a press briefing. It appeared that a cell phone conversation between the rescue teams and the company’s office may have been overhead and misunderstood, he said. Hatfield said the company waited to correct the information until it knew more about the rescue…the rescue mission had focused the attention of the entire nation on this tiny West Virginia community."
My own father was reflective in his e-messages about the event. "Your mother stayed up till 4 AM or later watching CNN as the story of the mine disaster unfolded… the Sago coal mine is about 50 miles south of us. But three of the miners who died in the disaster were from our Philippi area. (Later reports indicated that four were from Barbour County.) It is a sad time… we have two men in our church that work in other mines… (my) grandfather Buel Webb worked in the coal mines of Eastern Kentucky. He lived to the age of 78… It is a dangerous business. But as some would say… the whole world is dangerous. We thank the Lord and do what we can."
Eventually, four crosses appeared on the courthouse lawn. It was a makeshift memorial for Marshall Winans, Jackie Weaver, David Lewis and Jim Bennett, local residents that had traveled to work at the Sago mine. Tara Tuckwiller, also of The Charleston Gazette, explained this outpouring of grief and love:
"PHILIPPI - The handmade crosses on the lawn of the courthouse were just one example of the many ways this coal community is trying to show support for all of the miners, their co-workers, friends and families. County workers made more crosses and placed them at a Belington bank. Another small local bank was draped with black ribbons, because four employees lost family members in the disaster, said Philippi Mayor Doris Mundy. For Thursday night, deputies had planned a simple candlelight service at the crosses. A larger candlelight service is planned for 7 p.m. Monday outside the courthouse, with an ecumenical service planned for 7 p.m. Tuesday at St. Elizabeth Catholic Church…"
Questions were quick to arise after the calamity. Before the tears had gone dry, there were already vexing issues to be considered. Was Sago a union operation? If not, would a UMW agreement have helped the miners? Were proper permits in place for operating the site? Did previous safety violations indicate potential trouble for the mine? Were elected officials professional in their oversight of the operation? In terms of reporting the story, were news outlets too eager to be ‘first’ with the details? And why did the MSHA (Mine Safety and Health Administration) erroneously tell Senators Byrd and Rockefeller that twelve miners had survived the blast, only to avoid follow-up when learning this was untrue? Such pondering will continue as the event is analyzed and reviewed in future days. Only the discovery that those involved left notes indicating a peaceful surrender gave any comfort to survivors.
For those who perished in Sago, there are no more worries to consider. Instead, they have found the embrace of eternal rest. Beyond the fragile nature of mortal life, their legacy will endure. The quiet dignity of these laborers is likely to inspire others to strive for greater things – more time with families, more diligence in the community, and more care at the workplace. This happening may be retold in many ways, by those who are gifted at the art of wordsmithing. Yet perhaps the most eloquent commentary comes not from pages of journalistic text, but in the words of a gospel melody that families could be heard singing in front of the Sago church:
"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me… I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see."