Some of the 12 coal miners who died in the Sago Mine disaster scrawled farewell notes assuring their loved ones that their final hours trapped underground amid toxic gases were not spent in agony.
“Tell all I’ll see them on the other side,” read the note found with the body of 51-year-old mine foreman Martin Toler Jr. “It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep. I love you Jr.”
Tom Toler, Martin’s older brother who worked 30 years in the mine with him, said Thursday that the note was “written very lightly and very loosely” in block letters on the back of an insurance application form his brother had in his pocket.
“I took it to mean that it was written in the final stages,” the brother said. “I’d call it more or less scribbling.”
The miners died after an explosion that rocked the mine Monday morning. Eleven of the victims were discovered nearly 42 hours after the blast, at the deepest point of the mine, behind a curtain-like barrier set up to keep out carbon monoxide, a toxic byproduct of combustion that was found to be present at deadly levels inside the shaft. The 12th victim was believed to have been killed by the blast itself.
Autopsies were under way Thursday, and officials would not comment on the cause of death or how long the men might have survived.
John Groves, whose brother Jerry was one of the victims, told The Associated Press that he knew that at least four notes were left behind. He said his family did not receive one.
No note was found on the body of 59-year-old machine operator Fred Ware Jr., but his daughter Peggy Cohen said she and other relatives who went to identify bodies at a temporary morgue were told by the medical examiner that some of the men wrote letters with a similar message: “Your dad didn’t suffer.”
Deceased miner did not look injured
Cohen said her father had the peaceful look of someone who died from carbon monoxide, and the only mark on his body was a bruise on his chest. “It comforts me to know he didn’t suffer and he wasn’t bruised or crushed. I didn’t need a note. I think I needed to visualize and see him.”
The sole survivor, 26-year-old Randal McCloy, remained in critical condition in a coma, struggling with the effects of oxygen deprivation to his vital organs. Doctors said he may have suffered brain damage. On Thursday afternoon, he was moved from a hospital in Morgantown to one in Pittsburgh for more intensive oxygen treatment.
“Certainly Mr. McCloy is going to have a tough course,” said Dr. John Prescott. “We just don’t know at this point how things will turn out.”
The miner’s father, Randal McCloy Sr., told The Associated Press that he believes “in his heart” that his son’s mostly 50-something colleagues decided during their last, desperate hours to share their dwindling supply of oxygen with his son because he was the youngest and had two young children.
“Those men were like brothers. They took care of each other,” he said.
There was no immediate confirmation from officials that the men shared their oxygen.
The miners were using a breathing apparatus designed to provide up to an hour’s worth of oxygen, but an expert said that time could conceivably be extended.
“A lot of it depends on the circumstances and how big you are and how much air you suck,” said Terry Farley, an administrator with West Virginia’s Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training.
Speaking of seeing his son on a hospital ventilator, the elder McCloy broke down in tears. “I bent over and kissed his head. I told him that I loved him,” he said.
The first of the funerals are set to begin on Saturday.
Families considering lawsuits
A spokeswoman for Gov. Joe Manchin said autopsies on the dead should be completed either late Thursday or early Friday, and his office indicated that if the families want him there, he would attend all the funerals.
Families of the victims are considering legal action, said Amber Helms, whose father, fire boss Terry Helms, was among those killed.
“It’s the biggest thing that’s going to happen after these miners are put to rest,” she said Thursday on NBC’s “Today.”
In other developments, federal and state investigators were at the mine Thursday seeking a cause for Monday’s explosion. Coal mine explosions are typically caused by buildups of naturally occurring methane gas or highly combustible coal dust in the air, but what exactly triggered that explosion remained unclear.
Lightning detected near mine
The Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette reported Thursday that a federal contractor that monitors thunderstorms detected three lightning strikes within five miles of the Sago mine within a half hour of Monday’s explosions. The contractor, Vaisala Inc., said two of the strikes, including one that was four to 10 times stronger than average, hit within 1½ miles of the mine.
David Dye, who heads the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said that in addition to the cause, investigation will also probe “how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners’ conditions.”
Just before midnight Tuesday, families received word that 12 miners were alive. Bells at the church pealed and politicians proclaimed the rescue a miracle before the truth emerged three hours later. At that point, the families’ joy turned instantly to fury, with one man lunging at coal company officials.