Ten Years Of Somber Reflection: WVU Faculty, Staff Recall Sago Mine Disaster
MORGANTOWN, WV — One of the worst mining disasters ever in the United States rocked a tiny community about an hour-and-a-half south of Morgantown 10 years ago.
In a flash, Sago, an unincorporated, unassuming and picturesque town nestled along the banks of the Buckhannon River, became an international epicenter.
Hundreds of reporters, camera crews and satellite trucks from around the country descended upon the Upshur County community to report on the tragedy that arose from the pit of one of the most dangerous professions - an
explosion that trapped 13 coal miners in the Sago Mine on January 02, 2006.
After two days of prayers, weariness and anxiety, only one of the 13 miners came out alive.
As we embark on the 10th anniversary of the disaster, West Virginia University experts are
available to reflect and discuss the issues - ranging from mine safety, legal ramifications, emergency response, trauma care and media coverage - related to the tragedy.
The decade has seen its share of improvements in the mining field, yet there’s still work to do.
The mining industry
Mine disasters such as Sago helped lead to the formation of a key component of WVU’s Mining Extension program - the opening of a simulated underground coal mine in 2009. The WVU facility, located at the Academy for Mine Training and Energy Technologies in Core, was unique when it opened as the only facility in the state to offer live fire training in an underground atmosphere. This effort was a collaboration of mining companies, state entities and various vendors across the country.
But the Mining Extension program’s dedication to the safety of coal miners is not some new, run-of-the-mill mission statement. In 2014, the program itself, housed in the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, celebrated its 100th anniversary of providing hands-on safety and health instruction to members of the mining industry. The program has worked cooperatively with state and federal agencies, academic departments at WVU, mining associations, labor and mining companies in West Virginia and across the country.
Any injury or loss of life in a mine is one too many, and serves as a reminder that safety and training procedures can always be enhanced; the difficulty is often variability in people’s performance, said Jim Dean, director of Mining and Industrial Extension (Dean can be reached at
“The legislation and increased training that came after Sago was one of the factors leading to our simulated mine,“ Dean said. “We created opportunities to deliver high-quality, hands-on, experiential training, which is better in developing skills than in traditional classrooms.“
The simulated mine includes three entries with one entry having a continuous conveyor belt. Other features include a mine fan and models of mining equipment. It also contains a National Fire Protection Association-compliant burn room, which is extensively used for firefighting training.
In addition to the simulated mine, Mining Extension offers training in a self-contained self-rescuer trailer. SCSRs are portable oxygen sources, or
breathing apparatuses, that provide breathable air. They are designed to
facilitate escape from mines after a fire or explosion.
Dean said SCSR training is crucial following Sago. Dean was appointed by
then-Gov. Joe Manchin in 2006 to serve as acting director of the West
Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training following the Sago
and Aracoma accidents. Throughout the investigation, it was thought that
the SCSRs used at Sago did not work. However, analysis by NIOSH showed that
the SCSRs contained sufficient air. One theory was that the miners had not
been properly trained to use the devices and did not recognize the heat and
restriction when using the device.
“Prior to 2006, each individual miner did not have the opportunity to
experience the heat and restrictive nature of wearing an SCSR,“ Dean said.
The SCSR trailer is intended to familiarize miners with using the
potentially life-saving apparatus.
“We don’t simply show them a video or tell them how to use it,“ said
Josh Brady, associate director of Mining Extension (
Brady can be reached at
“We take them to the unit, have them deploy it, understand it and use
“You can have the greatest equipment and technology, but if you don’t
have the skillset to use them correctly, you won’t succeed.“
Other improvements to emerge after Sago include the development of
refuge chambers, emergency underground shelters intended to provide four
days of air, food and water for multiple workers. Further enhancements in
communications and tracking devices also followed suit, all of which are
taken into account in Mining Extension’s training programs.
“We have a history of working collaboratively with diverse groups of
people to develop or update curriculum for miners,“ Dean said. “The
department really pioneered that years ago, long before I came along in
Last year, Mining Extension trained more than 3,755 miners from seven
Others in the Statler College have also made strides in mine safety
research. In 2011, mining engineering professor
Keith Heasley received a $110,511 grant from the U.S. Department of
Health and Human Services Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to
develop a seismic system for locating trapped miners(Heasley can be
reached at 304-293-3842 or
The system is portable and can be set up within minutes of arriving at
the accident site.
That particular project stemmed from Sago. The 13 men were trapped two
miles inside the mine at about 280 feet below the ground. The only
survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., later recounted how he and his fellow miners
took turns pounding at the mine bolts and plates underground with a
sledgehammer, in hopes that rescuers above ground would hear those pleas
Several factors inhibited responders’ ability to locate and rescue the
miners. Traditional seismic systems used to locate trapped miners are
limited in depth, Heasley explained. Most systems can’t locate miners more
than 400 feet underground. Although the Sago miners were trapped within 280
feet, a seismic system was never tried because rescuers assumed that
background noise would interfere with the miners’ signals.
Background noise, which can be anything from the wind, chatter or trees
rustling, can interfere with the signals that determine a miner’s exact
The system tested by Heasley has special hardware and software filters
to remove the background noise. It has been tested at two local mine sites:
The 4 West Mine in Greene County, Pennsylvania, and the Federal No. 2 Mine
in Fairview. It was even recently tested in Australia.
“The technology is not foolproof,“ Heasley said. “It takes an educated
person to run them. They’re complex and expensive.“
Heasley has partnered with SureWave Technology, a United Kingdom-based
company that has further developed the seismic system.
“The good thing is that the technology is out there. If we did have an
event, we’d know who to call.“
Emergency response and trauma care
Serving as state EMS medical director of West Virginia,
Dr. Bill Ramsey received a page during a
conference in Morgantown (Ramsey can be reached at
He was informed there was an accident at the Sago Mine.
Ramsey had responded to several mine accidents over the years, so this
one, in particular, didn’t seem too unusual, just yet.
“The magnitude and the international attention it would receive was
unknown at this point,“ said Ramsey, who is now chief collaboration officer
and director of coordination and logistics for WVU Health Sciences. “Looking back, Sago unfolded
in a sequential fashion, like a snowball rolling down a hill.“
Ramsey soon caught word that this was no ordinary mine accident, though
he says no one mine incident is necessarily “routine.“ After receiving
confirmation that 13 miners were trapped, Ramsey called in the cavalry of
emergency medical responders from local and state levels.
In his role as state EMS medical director, Ramsey was responsible for
overseeing the medical operation outside the mine while mine rescue teams
tended to the situation underground. Those duties included keeping
hospitals and medical command teams informed and providing consultation and
medical updates to Gov. Manchin and other state agencies.
One of the greatest takeaways from Sago is the importance of accurate
information and communication, Ramsey said. Communication errors and
incomplete information are common in the early phases of any emergency
response, he said. However, the gravity of Sago led to an emotionally
intense atmosphere for not only rescue personnel and victims’ families, but
also the media.
Media outlets and news services, including The Associated Press and
Reuters, reported shortly before midnight Jan. 4, 2006, that 12 of the 13
miners survived. A few hours later, it was reported that a miscommunication
had taken place and that only one of the 13 miners was, in fact, alive.
“It’s not uncommon in rescue situations for communication to be
imperfect,“ Ramsey said. “For example, when emergency responders are first
dispatched to a car wreck, the information they initially receive is
frequently partially wrong, but initial communication always requires
confirmation and clarification. In the hostile and hazardous environment of
the mine, the rescuers are talking with air masks on and folks on the
outside are waiting and wanting badly a positive outcome. In this
particular situation, because of the magnitude and the hypersensitivity, it
spread like lighting a match to a gas tank.“
Case in point: When Dr. Alison Wilson
and other trauma specialists at WVU were first alerted about the mine
disaster, they were told that 30 miners were trapped - not 13
(Wilson can be reached at
Nonetheless, WVU activated its trauma teams and the intensive care unit
was ready to treat any incoming patients.
“There was a lot of concern about whether we could absorb 30 people, but
we were ready,“ Wilson said.
Since the 9/11 attacks, emergency and healthcare readiness had been
heightened on state and federal levels, she said. Responders and hospital
personnel were better equipped to handle large-scale emergencies.
“Planning ahead with the mentality of ‘when it happens’ instead of ‘if
it’s going to happen’ has helped us with the processes,“ Wilson said.
Sago served as an additional wake-up call for the trauma care
“It made us think about how we set up a statewide trauma system and
utilize the various healthcare facilities, so you don’t have everyone with
a broken arm going to the main hospitals,“ Wilson said. “What we learned
from Sago is that it’s crucial to prepare and build communication between
the hospitals and emergency responders to identify the severely-injured
patients and get them to the level one centers as fast as possible. The
patients with less critical injuries can be transported elsewhere - like a
smaller, regional hospital - to receive care.“
Wilson currently serves as director of WVU’s Institute
for Critical Care and Trauma, which aims to promote research,
education, outreach, injury prevention and improved patient care in areas
WVU handles several patients of mining and gas and oil industry
accidents, Wilson said.
“They’re hard, high-risk jobs,“ she said. “They’re in tight quarters
and, unfortunately, we have seen some substantial injuries that are
disabling. Of mining accidents, many are crush injuries, like a crushed
back or pelvis.“
One global medical improvement since Sago is the development of new
technologies that aid patients with lung issues and low-oxygen levels,
Wilson said. In intensive care medicine, extracorporeal membrane
oxygenation is a newer technique that provides both cardiac and respiratory
support to persons whose heart and lungs are unable to garner enough gas
exchange to sustain life. ECMO works by removing blood from the body and
artificially removing the carbon dioxide and oxygenating red blood
Pat McGinley has kept a watchful eye over the effectiveness of
coal mine safety regulation over much of the last four decades
(McGinley can be reached at 304-552-2631 or
He joined the WVU College of Law in 1975
after serving as a special assistant attorney general in Pennsylvania who
was heavily engaged in mine safety litigation.
Following Sago, he was called upon to serve as an investigator to an
independent, mine disaster investigation commissioned by West Virginia’s
governor. Five years later, he served as a member of Gov. Manchin’s
independent panel investigating the 2010 Upper Big Branch Mine Disaster, a
coal mine explosion in southern West Virginia that killed 29 miners.
McGinley believes that a series of mine disasters, beginning with Sago,
has led to tougher mine safety enforcement by MSHA and a few improvements
to mine safety laws.
In the same month as the Sago disaster, the West Virginia Legislature
passed a bill creating a new mine emergency response system that required
coal companies to provide miners with additional emergency air supplies,
communications equipment and tracking devices.
Federal regulations also went into effect in 2006 that would require
additional and improved SCSRs, lifelines (ropes) to help guide underground
miners in poor visibility and additional trainings.
In addition to Sago, McGinley cited the Aracoma Alma Mine accident in
Logan County, which killed two miners; the Darby Mine No. 1 disaster in
Kentucky, which killed five miners; the Crandall Canyon Mine disaster in
Utah, which killed six miners and three rescuers; and Upper Big Branch, as
the series of accidents that contributed to regulatory changes.
“Sago began the process of turning a spotlight on coal mine health and
safety,“ McGinley said. “Upper Big Branch was the culmination of that.
These events made clear the inadequacy of mine safety enforcement for at
least a decade.“
McGinley believes that investigators learned from Sago that it was
important to initiate more thorough, comprehensive and professional reviews
of mine disasters.
“Unlike Sago and mine disaster investigations over the entire
20th century, the Upper Big Branch investigation was the most
thorough and professionally-done,“ he said. “Several hundred witnesses who
worked the Upper Big Branch mine received subpoenas and testified under
oath concerning conditions at the mine, violations of mine safety rules and
the manner in which the was managed. For the first time, mine disaster
investigators knew how to ask the right questions and probe for the truth.
That didn’t quite happen at Sago or in other prior disaster
“The significant changes in mine safety enforcement since Sago has
largely been a result of a regulators rejection of the very sorry history
of enforcement by federal and state governments in the first decade of the
21st century,“ McGinley continued. “However, neither state nor federal
legislators have used what was learned from recent post-Sago mine disaster
investigations to enact needed amendments to existing law. That is
No one media outlet, whether it be CNN, The New York Times or
local television news crews, was immune to reporting what became wildly
inaccurate information about the fate of the Sago miners.
Still, it was not the fault of the media.
“Everyone was getting the same information,“ said April
Kaull, assistant director of University Relations-News at
WVU (Kaull can be reached at 304-293-3990 or
“Multiple news organizations were reporting this and we had to start
walking this information back as we learned more from the individuals
giving us briefings.“
Many newspapers, including USA Today, The
Washington Post and The New York Times, erroneously ran
stories on their Jan. 4, 2006 front pages that 12 miners were found alive.
Of course, that information was recanted in the early hours of that day due
to poor communication between responders underground and officials above
Kaull, who, at the time, was working at WBOY-TV and West Virginia Media
as an anchor and executive producer, believed several valuable lessons in
journalism were learned from Sago.
“We all became much more cautious,“ she said. “In our newsroom, the
younger reporters learned to navigate a very delicate situation. They
learned to be journalists.“
Amongst the national media circus, the local journalists, at times, had
to outmaneuver the more domineering national outlets like CNN, Fox News and
MSNBC. Hundreds of media set up outside the Sago Baptist Church, where
families had gathered to await news of the miners. That atmosphere showed
the importance of local journalism, Kaull said.
“Being a local journalist means building relationships with people in
the same community you live and work, and to call upon those people in a
time of crisis,“ Kaull said. “The media from out of town - they don’t have
to be held accountable. They’re gone after they get the story. For local
journalists, it revealed to them the importance of doing a good job, being
fair and being compassionate while at the same time digging for truth.“
Kaull covered several of the miners’ funerals, however, she respected
the families’ space.
“I remember being in Buckhannon and Tennerton and the surrounding
communities, going from funeral home to funeral home,“ she said. “I did not
talk to the families on that day. I felt it needed to be their time to
grieve on their own.“
As an adjunct professor in the Reed College of Media, Kaull
discusses her experiences with her students. Kaull also covered the Upper
Big Branch mine disaster, which is another lesson in relationship-building
and responsible journalism.
“As a journalist, you are granted great access to people, places, issues
and events that the average person doesn’t have,“ she said. “With that
great access comes great responsibility.
~~ WVU ~~
BREAKING NEWS: Multiple Deaths Reported from Shooting Rampage at UCC
ROSEBURG, OR — A shooter described as a 20-year-old man opened fire on a rural community college campus in Oregon on Thursday morning, killing multiple people and injuring even more.
Ellen F. Rosenblum, the Oregon attorney general, said her office believed that 13 people were killed in the shooting and another 20 people were injured.
“We are just heartbroken here in Oregon that an act of this magnitude has occurred in our state,” Rosenblum said in an interview on MSNBC. She said the figures were from the Oregon Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice division. She cautioned that the situation was still developing, and other officials confirmed few details.
The lone gunman was killed following an exchange of fire with police, said Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin during a news conference Thursday afternoon.
Hanlin said he could not confirm accounts from other officials regarding the number of people who were killed and injured. “We have confirmed that there are confirmed injuries and there are confirmed fatalities,” he said. “At this point, it’s a very active scene.”
No officers were believed to be injured, he added.
He said it was too soon to know if anyone else was involved in the shooting.
Between 20 and 25 people may have been injured and as many as 15 people may have been killed, according to Mike Lane, assistant chief of the fire department in Roseburg.
The scene was chaotic at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon. Ambulances ferried victims to local hospitals, and students reported on social media that they had been trapped inside classrooms.
The shooting was first reported before 10:40 a.m. local time, the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office said in a statement. Students and faculty were evacuated from campus to the county’s fairgrounds, the sheriff’s office said.
Jasmyne Davis, 19, was in class when the gunfire began. She said she heard one shot, followed by a 30-second pause, before she heard an argument and eight more gunshots from the classroom next door.
Two students ran out the door of her classroom, but a female student who tried to run out was shot in the right arm, Davis said. “Close the door!” the student yelled as she fell back into the classroom.
“I’ve lived in Douglas County my whole life and I never thought I’d see anything like this,” said Danny Medak, 20, a basketball player at Umpqua. He said he heard a loud noise, a pause and then a round of gunshots..
After being released, they boarded a bus for the 13-minute drive to the Douglas County Fairgrounds, where Red Cross volunteers handed out food and water.
Kenneth Ungerman, 25, a Navy veteran and student at the college, was just outside of Snyder Hall when the shooting started. Ungerman said he and a National Guard recruiter heard the pop of gunshots. “We’re both veterans. We know what a gunshot sounds like,” Ungerman said.
He added that the shooter was walking towards Snyder hall on the left side of the building. “It looked like a male, I saw him with a handgun. He was shooting outside at the windows of Snyder Hall,” Ungerman recounted. According to Ungerman, the man was wearing a dark shirt and jeans.
As 15 to 20 shots rang out, students began running out of the right side of the hall yelling: “There’s a shooter! Run, run! Get out of there!”
“We got underneath my jeep rolled on top, and took off,” Ungerman said. They stopped at the entrance to the campus to stop traffic.
The News-Review newspaper in Douglas County quoted a student, Kortney Moore, saying the shooter had asked people their religion before opening fire. Moore could not be immediately reached for comment.
Federal authorities joined officials from Oregon in swarming the rural community college, located about three hours south of Portland. Agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms had arrived in the morning and additional agents were also being dispatched. The FBI field office in Portland also said it was sending agents to the scene.
Students were told to stay in locked-down classes after the gunfire. Ryan Rundell, 18, said he was told to stay for about two hours. Students were allowed to leave after being told the gunman was dead.
During a series of news conferences Thursday afternoon, officials cautioned that it was still relatively early and confirmed few details.
“These scenes are very dynamic and they change,” said Richard Evans Jr., superintendent of the Oregon State Police. “Our no. 1 priority is making sure that all victims are safe.”
Umpqua, one of 17 community colleges in Oregon, has about 2,000 students and about 200 full- and part-time faculty members. Federal data suggest Umpqua is a quiet campus, with the only crimes reported there in recent years being an occasional burglary and, in 2013, an aggravated assault.
The rampage was the latest in a series of mass shootings that have produced national revulsion, even as they have left Republicans and Democrats divided over whether the violence should lead to stricter gun laws. The campus shootings on Thursday came about three months after the nine people were gunned down at a historic African American church in Charleston, S.C.
School shootings have figured prominently in this series of tragedies, including the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, and the deaths of 20 children in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Police in Oregon are responding to reports of a shooter on a rural community college campus Thursday, authorities said.
A fire official from one of the agencies responding to the reported shooting said that an initial account from the scene indicated a very serious incident. The assistant chief of the Roseburg, Ore., Fire Department said that a fire official reported over a dispatch radio that between 20 and 25 people were injured and as many as 15 people were killed, though he cautioned that the numbers were not confirmed yet.
“As you can imagine, it was chaos. that’s what he said on the radio,” Mike Lane, assistant chief of the fire department in nearby Roseburg, said in a telephone interview with The Washington Post on Thursday.
Reports on social media suggested a serious incident at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon.
Livestream reporting from KOIN 6 TV and KATU.