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Letter from the survivor of last January's blast shows... Miners' safety came last at Sago

By Elizabeth Schulte | May 5, 2006 | Page 2

"AS MY trapped coworkers lost consciousness one by one, the room grew still and I continued to sit and wait, unable to do much else."

This chilling passage is from a letter by Randall McCloy Jr., the only survivor of the Sago Mine tragedy in January, in which 12 West Virginia men died after being trapped underground by an explosion. McCloy himself spent weeks in a coma after the accident.

The letter paints a horrifying picture of the workers' last helpless hours. "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," McCloy wrote. "It was clear that there was nothing I could do to help him."

McCloy's letter, written to the families of his dead coworkers and released last week, is more evidence that, for the mine owners, workers' safety took a back seat to profit.

When at least four of the miners' breathing apparatuses malfunctioned, they had to share devices, and halted their escape attempt because of the thick smoke from the explosion, according to McCloy.

That's why they barricaded themselves in the farthest reaches of the mine--in the hopes of escaping poisonous gases. Rescuers didn't get to them for 41 hours. "They were probably 500 to 600 feet away from fresh air, and they just didn't know that," said Ron Bowersox, a safety representative with the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), who was among the first to arrive at the mine accident site. The Sago mine was nonunion.

So far, 26 people have died this year in the coal mines, already four more than in all of 2005, according to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

The UMWA is trying to push MSHA to further investigate the wall that separated the work area at Sago from the area where the blast happened. After the explosion, all that was left of the 40-inch-thick wall was dust, Bowersox told reporters.

Mine owners responded to accusations that the breathing devices were broken by claiming the workers didn't know how to use them. But Chris Toler, the 30-year-old son of miner Martin Toler, who died in the disaster, told the Associated Press, "That was absurd. The miners have been in there many years. They all knew how to use their equipment."

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