Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Tears & Dashed Hopes in West Virginia

Last night, I went to bed after seeing the news reports of 12 coal miners found alive inside the Sago Coal Mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia. The elation and joy of the families was evident. CNN responded to shouts coming from the crowd of "Twelve alive!" by reporting the news, yet no miner appeared, no press conference was held. The closest to official confirmation was the Governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, saying that a miracle had happened.

Yet, something seemed out of kilter to me. Perhaps it is my inate skepticism, but I wondered about the reports of a planned reunion at the Baptist Church near the mine. Wouldn't it be wise to have the miners examined, given oxygen and IVs? Why had no official word come from the rescue team? Still, I hoped the reports were true, and finally went to bed.

When I got up this morning and learned that only one miner had in fact survived, my thoughts immediately went to the families I had seen on television only a few hours earlier, celebrating the expected return of their beloved family members. What a cruel blow, to believe they were safe, and find out the horrible truth. The emotional roller coaster of going from dispair to elation and then to incredulity, grief and anger has got to be the most awful of emotional journeys.

Whether it was miscommunication from the rescue team to the command center, a wrongly overheard radio, or any other reason, this should never have happened, and should never again. Once the families deal with their losses, this must be addressed, as well as why the Sago mine was still operating after reports of numerous safety citations.

West Virginia has precious little economic opportunity, and the mines provide some of the best paying jobs in the state. The strong and brave workers in the coal mines understand the risk, but they should not be subject to undue danger. Underground mining will never be 100% safe, but perhaps more should be done to make them less hazardous. Economic factors will never drive the mining companies to improve the conditions in the mines. This is one instance where government regulatory bodies can. I am a strong proponent of small government, but this definitely comes under providing for the common welfare.

This tragedy hits very close to home. The surviving miner is from Simpson, WV, a very small town only 8 miles from my wife's hometown of Grafton. It is my sincere hope that this young man survives to lead a normal life. The people of West Virginia are strong and resilient. They have endured many hardships in life, and they will move ahead. Yet those lost in this latest mining disaster will be remembered, and hopefully the mines will be made safer for present and future coal miners.

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