Sago Mine Disaster

Five years ago today, an explosion rocked the Sago mine in Upshur County, West Virginia.  Twelve miners died; miners’ families were led on a horrific emotional roller-coaster ride during which they were told that their trapped fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles, and in-laws had been found alive (only to find out, hours later, that only one trapped miner, Randal McCloy, was found still breathing, barely, in the mine); and the media did what it seems to do best when large numbers of working people are killed: swarm the site for 24/7 coverage, and then (poof!) forever disappear.

I remember standing in the vestibule of the Boiler House Theatre at Davis & Elkins College in Elkins, West Virginia, following one of the performances of the staged version of my book Coal Mountain Elementaryin the spring of 2009.  There, several of the relatives of miners who had lost their lives at Sago stayed afterward to tell the director, the student and community actors and actresses, and myself that, although living through those events again through the play was incredibly difficult, they were so happy that now people were not going to forget what happened at Sago.

So, have we done our job to remember?  On this fifth anniversary of the Sago Mine disaster — and on the heels of the worst year for coal mining deaths (48) in the U.S. since 1992 — where are the journalists and media to remind us of the disaster?  And to investigate whether any changes are being made in the industry?  Except for a few brief pieces in West Virginia newspapers, the story of Sago has been condemned to the archives of history.  This troubles me greatly.  Because not only does Sago represent another one of the seemingly endless string of coal mining disasters that continue to this day in West Virginia, in the U.S.A., and around the globe; Sago also represents a significant example of how our insatiable appetite for “news” in the current media environment can also play a role in how disasters such as these are covered and how that coverage can influence (and has influenced) rescue operations and decisions made by those trying to save lives.

As Ken Ward Jr. reminds us in one of the very few substantial editorials on this fifth anniversary of the disaster, it’s important to remember the words from the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, spoken on the Senate floor after Sago:

I’ve seen it all before.  First, the disaster, then the weeping and then the outrage.  But in a few weeks, when the outrage is gone, when the ink on the editorials is dry, everything returns to business as usual.

It’s also important to keep the pressure on, to keep the memory of the Sago miners alive, to keep writing op-eds and letters to your representatives and senators, to protest, to organize, and to make sure that business is absolutely not allowed to return to business as usual.  We’ve seen the record of “business as usual” at Sago, at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, at the Pike River Mine in New Zealand, across China, and around the world.  And it’s a pretty deadly sight.

Mark Nowak, a 2010 Guggenheim fellow, is the author of Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009) and Shut Up Shut Down (Coffee House Press, 2004).  Read his blog Coal Mountain at <>.

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