Ten years of somber reflection: WVU faculty, staff recall Sago Mine disaster
One of the worst mining disasters ever in the United States rocked a tiny community about an hour-and-a-half south of Morgantown 10 years ago.
In a flash, Sago, an unincorporated, unassuming and picturesque town nestled along the banks of the Buckhannon River, became an international epicenter.
Hundreds of reporters, camera crews and satellite trucks from around the country descended upon the Upshur County community to report on the tragedy that arose from the pit of one of the most dangerous professions - an explosion that trapped 13 coal miners in the Sago Mine on Jan. 2, 2006.
After two days of prayers, weariness and anxiety, only one of the 13 miners came out alive.
As we embark on the 10th anniversary of the disaster, West Virginia University experts are available to reflect and discuss the issues - ranging from mine safety, legal ramifications, emergency response, trauma care and media coverage - related to the tragedy.
The decade has seen its share of improvements in the mining field, yet there's still work to do.
The mining industry
Mine disasters such as Sago helped lead to the formation of a key component of WVU's Mining Extension program - the opening of a simulated underground coal mine in 2009. The WVU facility, located at the Academy for Mine Training and Energy Technologies in Core, was unique when it opened as the only facility in the state to offer live fire training in an underground atmosphere. This effort was a collaboration of mining companies, state entities and various vendors across the country.
But the Mining Extension program's dedication to the safety of coal miners is not some new, run-of-the-mill mission statement. In 2014, the program itself, housed in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, celebrated its 100th anniversary of providing hands-on safety and health instruction to members of the mining industry. The program has worked cooperatively with state and federal agencies, academic departments at WVU, mining associations, labor and mining companies in West Virginia and across the country.
Any injury or loss of life in a mine is one too many, and serves as a reminder that safety and training procedures can always be enhanced; the difficulty is often variability in people's performance, said Jim Dean, director of Mining and Industrial Extension (Dean can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).
"The legislation and increased training that came after Sago was one of the factors leading to our simulated mine," Dean said. "We created opportunities to deliver high-quality, hands-on, experiential training, which is better in developing skills than in traditional classrooms."
The simulated mine includes three entries with one entry having a continuous conveyor belt. Other features include a mine fan and models of mining equipment. It also contains a National Fire Protection Association-compliant burn room, which is extensively used for firefighting training.
In addition to the simulated mine, Mining Extension offers training in a self-contained self-rescuer trailer. SCSRs are portable oxygen sources, or breathing apparatuses, that provide breathable air. They are designed to facilitate escape from mines after a fire or explosion.
Dean said SCSR training is crucial following Sago. Dean was appointed by then-Gov. Joe Manchin in 2006 to serve as acting director of the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training following the Sago and Aracoma accidents. Throughout the investigation, it was thought that the SCSRs used at Sago did not work. However, analysis by NIOSH showed that the SCSRs contained sufficient air. One theory was that the miners had not been properly trained to use the devices and did not recognize the heat and restriction when using the device.
"Prior to 2006, each individual miner did not have the opportunity to experience the heat and restrictive nature of wearing an SCSR," Dean said. The SCSR trailer is intended to familiarize miners with using the potentially life-saving apparatus.
"We don't simply show them a video or tell them how to use it," said Josh Brady, associate director of Mining Extension ( Brady can be reached at email@example.com). "We take them to the unit, have them deploy it, understand it and use it.
"You can have the greatest equipment and technology, but if you don't have the skillset to use them correctly, you won't succeed."
Other improvements to emerge after Sago include the development of refuge chambers, emergency underground shelters intended to provide four days of air, food and water for multiple workers. Further enhancements in communications and tracking devices also followed suit, all of which are taken into account in Mining Extension's training programs.
"We have a history of working collaboratively with diverse groups of people to develop or update curriculum for miners," Dean said. "The department really pioneered that years ago, long before I came along in 1994."
Last year, Mining Extension trained more than 3,755 miners from seven different states.
Others in the Statler College have also made strides in mine safety research. In 2011, mining engineering professor Keith Heasley received a $110,511 grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to develop a seismic system for locating trapped miners(Heasley can be reached at 304-293-3842 or firstname.lastname@example.org ).
The system is portable and can be set up within minutes of arriving at the accident site.
That particular project stemmed from Sago. The 13 men were trapped two miles inside the mine at about 280 feet below the ground. The only survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., later recounted how he and his fellow miners took turns pounding at the mine bolts and plates underground with a sledgehammer, in hopes that rescuers above ground would hear those pleas for help.
Several factors inhibited responders' ability to locate and rescue the miners. Traditional seismic systems used to locate trapped miners are limited in depth, Heasley explained. Most systems can't locate miners more than 400 feet underground. Although the Sago miners were trapped within 280 feet, a seismic system was never tried because rescuers assumed that background noise would interfere with the miners' signals.
Background noise, which can be anything from the wind, chatter or trees rustling, can interfere with the signals that determine a miner's exact location.
The system tested by Heasley has special hardware and software filters to remove the background noise. It has been tested at two local mine sites: The 4 West Mine in Greene County, Pennsylvania, and the Federal No. 2 Mine in Fairview. It was even recently tested in Australia.
"The technology is not foolproof," Heasley said. "It takes an educated person to run them. They're complex and expensive."
Heasley has partnered with SureWave Technology, a United Kingdom-based company that has further developed the seismic system.
"The good thing is that the technology is out there. If we did have an event, we'd know who to call."
Emergency response and trauma care
Serving as state EMS medical director of West Virginia, Dr. Bill Ramsey received a page during a conference in Morgantown (Ramsey can be reached at email@example.com). He was informed there was an accident at the Sago Mine.
Ramsey had responded to several mine accidents over the years, so this one, in particular, didn't seem too unusual, just yet.
"The magnitude and the international attention it would receive was unknown at this point," said Ramsey, who is now chief collaboration officer and director of coordination and logistics for WVU Health Sciences. "Looking back, Sago unfolded in a sequential fashion, like a snowball rolling down a hill."
Ramsey soon caught word that this was no ordinary mine accident, though he says no one mine incident is necessarily "routine." After receiving confirmation that 13 miners were trapped, Ramsey called in the cavalry of emergency medical responders from local and state levels.
In his role as state EMS medical director, Ramsey was responsible for overseeing the medical operation outside the mine while mine rescue teams tended to the situation underground. Those duties included keeping hospitals and medical command teams informed and providing consultation and medical updates to Gov. Manchin and other state agencies.
One of the greatest takeaways from Sago is the importance of accurate information and communication, Ramsey said. Communication errors and incomplete information are common in the early phases of any emergency response, he said. However, the gravity of Sago led to an emotionally intense atmosphere for not only rescue personnel and victims' families, but also the media.
Media outlets and news services, including The Associated Press and Reuters, reported shortly before midnight Jan. 4, 2006, that 12 of the 13 miners survived. A few hours later, it was reported that a miscommunication had taken place and that only one of the 13 miners was, in fact, alive.
"It's not uncommon in rescue situations for communication to be imperfect," Ramsey said. "For example, when emergency responders are first dispatched to a car wreck, the information they initially receive is frequently partially wrong, but initial communication always requires confirmation and clarification. In the hostile and hazardous environment of the mine, the rescuers are talking with air masks on and folks on the outside are waiting and wanting badly a positive outcome. In this particular situation, because of the magnitude and the hypersensitivity, it spread like lighting a match to a gas tank."
Case in point: When Dr. Alison Wilson and other trauma specialists at WVU were first alerted about the mine disaster, they were told that 30 miners were trapped - not 13 (Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Nonetheless, WVU activated its trauma teams and the intensive care unit was ready to treat any incoming patients.
"There was a lot of concern about whether we could absorb 30 people, but we were ready," Wilson said.
Since the 9/11 attacks, emergency and healthcare readiness had been heightened on state and federal levels, she said. Responders and hospital personnel were better equipped to handle large-scale emergencies.
"Planning ahead with the mentality of 'when it happens' instead of 'if it's going to happen' has helped us with the processes," Wilson said.
Sago served as an additional wake-up call for the trauma care profession.
"It made us think about how we set up a statewide trauma system and utilize the various healthcare facilities, so you don't have everyone with a broken arm going to the main hospitals," Wilson said. "What we learned from Sago is that it's crucial to prepare and build communication between the hospitals and emergency responders to identify the severely-injured patients and get them to the level one centers as fast as possible. The patients with less critical injuries can be transported elsewhere - like a smaller, regional hospital - to receive care."
Wilson currently serves as director of WVU's Institute for Critical Care and Trauma, which aims to promote research, education, outreach, injury prevention and improved patient care in areas of trauma.
WVU handles several patients of mining and gas and oil industry accidents, Wilson said.
"They're hard, high-risk jobs," she said. "They're in tight quarters and, unfortunately, we have seen some substantial injuries that are disabling. Of mining accidents, many are crush injuries, like a crushed back or pelvis."
One global medical improvement since Sago is the development of new technologies that aid patients with lung issues and low-oxygen levels, Wilson said. In intensive care medicine, extracorporeal membrane oxygenation is a newer technique that provides both cardiac and respiratory support to persons whose heart and lungs are unable to garner enough gas exchange to sustain life. ECMO works by removing blood from the body and artificially removing the carbon dioxide and oxygenating red blood cells.
Pat McGinley has kept a watchful eye over the effectiveness of coal mine safety regulation over much of the last four decades (McGinley can be reached at 304-552-2631 or email@example.com). He joined the WVU College of Law in 1975 after serving as a special assistant attorney general in Pennsylvania who was heavily engaged in mine safety litigation.
Following Sago, he was called upon to serve as an investigator to an independent, mine disaster investigation commissioned by West Virginia's governor. Five years later, he served as a member of Gov. Manchin's independent panel investigating the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, a coal mine explosion in southern West Virginia that killed 29 miners.
McGinley believes that a series of mine disasters, beginning with Sago, has led to tougher mine safety enforcement by MSHA and a few improvements to mine safety laws.
In the same month as the Sago disaster, the West Virginia Legislature passed a bill creating a new mine emergency response system that required coal companies to provide miners with additional emergency air supplies, communications equipment and tracking devices.
Federal regulations also went into effect in 2006 that would require additional and improved SCSRs, lifelines (ropes) to help guide underground miners in poor visibility and additional trainings.
In addition to Sago, McGinley cited the Aracoma Alma Mine accident in Logan County, which killed two miners; the Darby Mine No. 1 disaster in Kentucky, which killed five miners; the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster in Utah, which killed six miners and three rescuers; and Upper Big Branch, as the series of accidents that contributed to regulatory changes.
"Sago began the process of turning a spotlight on coal mine health and safety," McGinley said. "Upper Big Branch was the culmination of that. These events made clear the inadequacy of mine safety enforcement for at least a decade."
McGinley believes that investigators learned from Sago that it was important to initiate more thorough, comprehensive and professional reviews of mine disasters.
"Unlike Sago and mine disaster investigations over the entire 20th century, the Upper Big Branch investigation was the most thorough and professionally-done," he said. "Several hundred witnesses who worked the Upper Big Branch mine received subpoenas and testified under oath concerning conditions at the mine, violations of mine safety rules and the manner in which the was managed. For the first time, mine disaster investigators knew how to ask the right questions and probe for the truth. That didn't quite happen at Sago or in other prior disaster investigations.
"The significant changes in mine safety enforcement since Sago has largely been a result of a regulators rejection of the very sorry history of enforcement by federal and state governments in the first decade of the 21st century," McGinley continued. "However, neither state nor federal legislators have used what was learned from recent post-Sago mine disaster investigations to enact needed amendments to existing law. That is extremely disappointing."
No one media outlet, whether it be CNN, The New York Times or local television news crews, was immune to reporting what became wildly inaccurate information about the fate of the Sago miners.
Still, it was not the fault of the media.
"Everyone was getting the same information," said April Kaull, assistant director of University Relations-News at WVU (Kaull can be reached at 304-293-3990 or firstname.lastname@example.org). "Multiple news organizations were reporting this and we had to start walking this information back as we learned more from the individuals giving us briefings."
Many newspapers, including USA Today, The Washington Post and The New York Times, erroneously ran stories on their Jan. 4, 2006 front pages that 12 miners were found alive. Of course, that information was recanted in the early hours of that day due to poor communication between responders underground and officials above ground.
Kaull, who, at the time, was working at WBOY-TV and West Virginia Media as an anchor and executive producer, believed several valuable lessons in journalism were learned from Sago.
"We all became much more cautious," she said. "In our newsroom, the younger reporters learned to navigate a very delicate situation. They learned to be journalists."
Amongst the national media circus, the local journalists, at times, had to outmaneuver the more domineering national outlets like CNN, Fox News and MSNBC. Hundreds of media set up outside the Sago Baptist Church, where families had gathered to await news of the miners. That atmosphere showed the importance of local journalism, Kaull said.
"Being a local journalist means building relationships with people in the same community you live and work, and to call upon those people in a time of crisis," Kaull said. "The media from out of town - they don't have to be held accountable. They're gone after they get the story. For local journalists, it revealed to them the importance of doing a good job, being fair and being compassionate while at the same time digging for truth."
Kaull covered several of the miners' funerals, however, she respected the families' space.
"I remember being in Buckhannon and Tennerton and the surrounding communities, going from funeral home to funeral home," she said. "I did not talk to the families on that day. I felt it needed to be their time to grieve on their own."
As an adjunct professor in the Reed College of Media, Kaull discusses her experiences with her students. Kaull also covered the Upper Big Branch mine disaster, which is another lesson in relationship-building and responsible journalism.
"As a journalist, you are granted great access to people, places, issues and events that the average person doesn't have," she said. "With that great access comes great responsibility.
For more information on news and events in the West Virginia University Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources:
College Relations office: 304-293-4086
Office of the Dean: 304-293-4157
Other College administrative and department offices: Administration