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After Sago tragedy, miners weigh return to work

Following the deadly mine disaster at the Sago mine in West Virginia, about 145 of the company's workers are facing a difficult decision whether to return to their dangerous jobs underground.
Sago coal miner Ronald Grall stands outside the Sago Baptist Church on Wednesday in Tallmansville, W.Va. It was at the church where family and friends learned that 12 miners trapped after a Jan. 2 coal mine explosion had died. Jeff Gentner / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Coal mines still call to Ronald Grall.

Despite the deaths of 12 co-workers in an explosion he narrowly escaped in the Sago Mine, Grall said he’s eager to get back inside, to the comfortable darkness in which he has worked for 40 years.

“I’m just a little nervous,” said Grall, 63, “Well, actually, my wife’s more nervous than I am.”

He and about 145 other Sago miners must face those fears as they decide whether to go back underground in other West Virginia mines operated by Sago owner International Coal Group Inc., based in Ashland, Ky.

Many did so last week at two nearby ICG mines: Sycamore No. 2 near Clarksburg and Sentinel near Philippi. Grall has so far been assigned to outside maintenance work at the Sago Mine, which is closed while the Jan. 2 explosion is investigated.

ICG Chief Executive Officer Ben Hatfield said Wednesday he wouldn’t know until at least the weekend how many miners had decided to stay with the company but he said early reports were positive.

‘I can’t walk out’
The returning miners include Danny Loudin, 56, of Norton. He said he accepted ICG’s offer of employment at Sycamore, about 40 miles away, because “they’re excellent people to work for.”

He likened mining to the military, where good soldiers trust their commander.

“Just like the war zone over in Iraq today, I just feel like I can’t walk out,” Loudin said.

Owen Jones, whose brother Jesse was killed at Sago, isn’t sure when he’ll go back.

Every mine is dangerous, he said, and “you can’t really, honestly say that you like working in a place like that.” He would not comment specifically on conditions at Sago.

The mine had been cited for 208 alleged safety violations during 2005. At least 17 were for serious problems.

ICG officials have said the company has spent more than $40 million upgrading its West Virginia mines since buying them in 2004. Hatfield said improvements at Sago included rehabilitating more than two miles of escapeways, doubling the amount of air circulating underground and improving the mine’s underground transportation system.

Jones, 40, of French Creek, has worked in the West Virginia mines for 16 years, mainly running heavy equipment.

Families reticent about return
On the day of the explosion, he headed a second crew that followed his brother’s group into the Sago Mine. His crew was about 10 minutes behind the others because they needed to switch to a larger vehicle, and they made it back out.

Jones, married with two teenage sons, said money was one reason he chose to follow his father into the mines, where a great-grandfather also died in an explosion.

“My wife and kids don’t want me to ever go back, but what are you supposed to do? You either work in the woods around here or in the coal mines or you work for Hardee’s or McDonald’s or something like that, and then you don’t make enough money to live,” he said.

Coal miners in the state earn an average of $55,000 a year.

Because of his family’s loss, Jones said, ICG has told him to take as much time as he needs to decide whether to return.

If he does, he won’t go back underground immediately. Like Grall, a member of his crew, Jones is on a list of workers assigned to repair work at Sago, working outside until the mine reopens.

Cognizant of constant danger
He’s torn by the prospect of returning underground.

“The good part about it is, you’re out of the weather; it stays 55 to 50-some degrees in there all the time,” Jones said. “But you’re still back underneath of a mountain where you know danger exists at all times.”

Death isn’t the only risk.

“When you’re working there, most of your men are hurting some way or another,” he said. “Bad backs or fingers cut off or broken bones or sliced by rocks. There’s a lot of people been hurt in there.”

Rick McGee, whose brother-in-law Randal McCloy Jr. is the lone survivor from the trapped crew, suffered a back injury at the Sago Mine that he says probably won’t allow him to return to mining — even if he wanted to.

“I’ll never walk back in the mines; it’s not worth it,” said McGee, 36, of Simpson. “The money’s good but with the family and everybody worrying, it’s not worth the hassle.”

Grall disagrees. He’s worked in eight or nine mines and can’t imagine another job he’d like more.

“The first day I was in a mine, I said this is probably what I’ll be doing for a long time because I liked it in there,” he said. “I just like being underground in the dark.”