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Operations Resume at Sago Coal Mine


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A town in pain
A town in pain (Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

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By VICKI SMITH
Associated Press Writer

March 16, 2006, 5:07 AM EST

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. -- The courthouse crosses are gone, the restaurant signs are mostly back to advertising the daily specials, and tons of black coal are again flowing from the depths of the Sago Mine.

But to say that things are getting back to normal would not be quite right. Not for a community that lost 12 men in a Jan. 2 explosion. Better, perhaps, to say life is moving on.

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Dozens of miners went underground for the first time since the explosion as the mine resumed production Wednesday -- some with eagerness and some simply determined to face the spot where their co-workers died of carbon monoxide poisoning, waiting for rescuers who reached them too late.

"They need to go back. It's their job. It's their life. It means a lot of families putting food on the table," said Naomi Fortney, 55, whose brother, Jimmy Ball, drives a truck at the mine.

Rocky Starkey had worked at Sago for three years before the blast that killed his good friend and longtime roof-bolting partner, Jerry Groves. He went back inside Tuesday to help prepare the mine for production.

"I want to see it. I mean, I'm not going to see anything. They've cleaned it all up," Starkey said. "I just want to go to that area to end it. That's closure for me."

International Coal Group Inc. believes an unusually powerful lightning strike somehow ignited methane gas that had accumulated behind a block wall. Federal investigators have not yet announced their conclusions.

ICG's investigation pointed to three simultaneous events at 6:26 a.m. -- an unusually powerful lightning strike near the mine, a confirmed seismic event at Sago, and the sounding of atmospheric alarms in the mine.

J. Davitt McAteer, former chief of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and the man charged with overseeing the state's probe of Sago, called ICG's announcement premature.

"Neither ICG or us know what the cause of the explosion is," he said. "ICG's suggestion that lightning strike has something to do with it is there ... and one cannot deny a substantial lightning hit near by."

John Groves, the brother of fallen miner Jerry Groves, said relatives want politicians to stop partisan bickering and put worker safety first, mainly by working on legislation that prevents accidents instead of just improving the response to them.

Groves said MSHA should require a technology, which ICG is considering, where nitrogen gas is pumped into abandoned and sealed areas to make dangerous gases inert.

"I think we owe all the guys that were there something. We owe it to them to make sure this never happens again," Groves said.

Federal inspectors met with the crews during the day, and ICG officials "told us to take it easy," said Ron Grall, who was on a second crew that escaped the explosion.

"The mine's safe," he said. "They've got the mine looking really good."

Jeff Winemiller has been hearing comments like that at the Country Store in Hinkleville, where many miners grab a takeout lunch.

"The word is they'll be in the safest mine in West Virginia," he said. "For how long, we don't know. But that's what they're thinking."






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