Bloody hands in West Virginia mine explosion
Detroit--The explosion that ripped through the Sago coal mine in central West Virginia on Jan. 2 set off a two-day chain of events that riveted the attention of the nation on the unfolding drama involving 13 miners, rescue teams, state and federal safety officials, miners' families and the entire community of Sago.
Thousands of written articles and TV reports described the peril of the 13 miners as rescue crews, slowly assembled, cautiously advanced into the mine 11 hours after the blast. Air samples obtained through a hole drilled from the ground into the mine revealed deadly accumulations of toxic carbon monoxide gas. While the miners carried canisters of oxygen, these were good for only 10 hours.
On the evening of the second day, rescuers reported they found the body of one miner, probably killed by the explosion. Just before midnight, a report reached the church where the families were gathered that the remaining 12 miners were alive, unleashing emotional jubilation. Even though company officials knew by then that only one miner had survived, they waited for three hours to tell the families the truth, that all the others were dead.
Their joyous exultation turned into furious grief. The miners had barricaded themselves in an area with fresh air, but the barricade could not protect them from the deadly carbon monoxide that killed all but one.
Many questions have been raised that need answers: What caused the explosion? Why was the mine allowed to operate when its safety record was three times worse than the average mine? It had 202 safety violations in the past two years, 50 of them since last October. Many of them were serious enough to set off explosions and cause roof falls. Why did it take so long to assemble the rescue teams? Why did only one miner, Randal McCloy Jr., survive? Why were reports from within the mine so miscommunicated? Why did company officials wait three hours to tell families the truth and avoid the emotional roller coaster they endured?
WHO CARES ABOUT SAFETY?
From my own experience in a coal mine explosion in West Virginia in l949, I know something about what those doomed miners must have felt. My own explosion resulted from management "miscommunication": one boss failed to tell my boss how far his crew had cut into the coal, and a dynamite blast in my work area set off a coal dust explosion that knocked me out and threw me about 50 feet.
My face, my hair, my clothing were all saturated with fine coal dust. I was lucky to be alive, along with two others who were injured, but management was never penalized for that violation.
Unlike the Sago mine, the coal mine I was working in was unionized. That can make a big difference where safety is concerned, because a miner in a non-union mine who complains about a safety violation can be fired on the spot. He has no protection from the absolute power that management exercises. Without union protection, I certainly would have been fired for reporting safety violations.
I also know that production is everything in the mine, and a boss will do anything to get that last pound of coal, including risking miners’ lives. Like most miners in my mine, I often refused an order by my boss to work in life-threatening conditions. In a non-union mine, a miner would not refuse such an order--many have died because of that, and are dying today.
Investigations by state officials and the U.S. Mine Health and Safety Administration are underway, and will continue for some time, to "assure that this never happens again"--only it will. Now we come to the most important issue of why this tragedy happened in the first place, and it lies directly in the policies and practices of the Bush administration. It is no secret that this administration has gutted the health and safety agencies in this country, slashing the funding for their operations and cutting the number of investigators that staff them. Moreover, appointed to head these agencies are corporate officials who have turned them into cheerleaders for corporations.
While these agencies have never been adequately funded or staffed, they have been so decimated by the Bush administrators that they cannot possibly cover their jurisdictions--even if there are conscientious investigators, which too many are not. It is why miners and their families, as well as workers in other industries, believe they will never get the truth from MHSA officials, who have no credibility since they have reduced or eliminated fines against coal operators for safety violations, delayed or thrown out reports of violations and often blame workers for the violations. Agencies that were created originally to protect the workers have been turned into corporate weapons against workers.
Nevertheless, workers, especially miners, continue to battle their oppression to maintain their lives and very humanity. It is possible that the Sago disaster will create such a public outcry against the outrages it exposed that demands for much-needed safety reforms can no longer be ignored by officials and legislators.
--Andy Phillips, co-author, THE COAL MINERS' GENERAL STRIKE OF 1949-50 AND THE BIRTH OF MARXIST-HUMANISM IN THE U.S.
Published by News and Letters Committees