IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Guilt, blame haunt some Sago survivors

Guilt and blame haunt some survivors of the Sago mine disaster a year ago in West Virginia.
Denver Anderson
Sago Mine survivor Denver Anderson shows the remains of his hard hat that was found several months after the Jan. 2 mine explosion which killed 11 coal miners.  Dale Sparks / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Fred Jamison still thrashes in his sleep.

Then, in the mornings, when he inspects the Sago Mine alone to make sure it’s safe for the day’s incoming crew, he passes the spot that haunts his dreams — the roped-off underground shrine with dried flowers, a silent and now-sacred space where no footprints disturb the dust.

It is the place where 12 trapped coal miners, some of them his friends, shared a dwindling supply of oxygen, banging frantically on a roof bolt in an attempt to signal rescuers, and dying in the dark.

Among that group of men, there is just one survivor of the tragedy a year ago Tuesday: Randal McCloy Jr., who lapsed into a coma from breathing carbon monoxide for 41 hours, yet miraculously lived.

State investigators blame lightning for the blast, saying it ignited methane gas that had accumulated naturally in a sealed-off section of the mine. Investigators have been unable to map the route the electricity took into the mine.

It’s human nature to want to lay blame, and for a while the fingers pointed at Jamison. As fireboss, it’s his job to ensure the mine is safe to enter before each shift.

“I was the main one they was looking at, and I just kept going over and over what I’d done,” says Jamison, 59, who’s lost 20 pounds because of the stress.

Last May, during a public hearing on the disaster, victims’ relatives publicly questioned whether the 25 minutes Jamison spent inspecting the section of the mine where the miners died was enough. They were angry and skeptical, particularly after learning that the notebook he normally used to record his inspection findings and the clothing he wore that morning had vanished in the chaos, never to be found.

During that hearing, Jamison said there were no violations to record that morning “because the section looked good.”

“If I hadn’t done my job, I’d be in jail by now,” Jamison told The Associated Press in a recent interview. “But I done my job, and the area I checked is where they went — and lived — to be rescued.”

Little comfort
Even so, the accusations wore on him. Long after the hearing, he still felt nervous. He couldn’t eat. Aside from his girlfriend, few offered him comfort or support.

“I was so confused I didn’t know left from right. That’s what I kept beating myself up over — maybe I didn’t check this, maybe I didn’t check that. And that’s normal. Anybody’s going to do that, you know?”

A few months ago, Jamison visited the widow of his friend Martin Toler Jr., one of the men who didn’t make it out of the mine. He told her how eager Toler had been to get home from work that day, to watch the West Virginia University Mountaineers win the Sugar Bowl. She told Jamison that he’d been in her husband’s prayers.

Toler had tried to be a steadying influence on Jamison.

“I wasn’t the perfect guy,” Jamison admits. “I never broke the law or nothing, but I was running around a lot, going to bars and stuff. ... He was all the time telling me to get my life straight.”

Jamison says he wants to visit the widows and children of his other lost friends, but when he thinks back to that hearing in May, he’s afraid.

“They had so much anger against everybody,” he says. “I don’t know. I think they’re just mad because we survived.”

Of the 29 miners in the mine that morning, Jamison and 15 others managed to walk out after the explosion. Physically, they were unhurt, but many were changed. One committed suicide, a couple left mining, but most go back to Sago every day.

Denver Anderson says he has long since let go of the guilt of surviving.

‘The good man above’
It was luck, or “the good man above” that spared him and the others that morning, says the 61-year-old Anderson, who has since transferred to another International Coal Group mine. His crew was 10 minutes behind on the mine-car track that morning when the explosion occurred.

“I know the company and the people working there did nothing wrong,” he says.

Still, Jamison says “it ain’t been easy” being one of the guys who survived.

So for now, to honor the fallen, Jamison tries to be a better man. He says he’s learned some patience and tried to let go of his grudges.

“I was the type of guy, if you made me mad, it was for life,” he says. “I’m trying to quit that.”