Locals assist Sago rescuers

By Danielle Gaines

It was a typical Monday morning on Jan. 2 at Viper Coal Mine in Williamsville, Ill., when the call came in. The call revealed 13 miners were trapped far below the Earth’s surface at the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, W.Va. Members of the Viper Mine rescue team immediately convened to help the trapped miners half a nation away.

Some rescue team members emerged from the mines where they had been working since dawn, while other team members reported to work on their vacation days. Within two hours, Pete Bryant, Brett Bushong, Ty Hunt, Brad Kauffman, Paul Perrine, Brandon Sanson and Alan Setzer, were boarding a chartered plane headed to the collapsed mine.

“We are very proud that they willingly and without hesitation got on a plane in less than two hours,” said Dale Harper, manager of Human Relations and Public Affairs of the Viper Mine.

The Illinois miners arrived at the Sago Mine by early afternoon. Fifteen other rescue teams from across the nation were also at the mine, Harper said. The International Coal Group, owner of both the Viper and Sago mines, did not declare the mine safe for rescue efforts until 6:00 p.m. Monday night.

At 11:45 p.m. a rescue group, whose names have not been released, located the bodies of the twelve-trapped miners who perished in the explosion. One miner, Randall McCloy, was found alive and transported to a hospital for treatment.

“Any fatality in the industry affects all of us,” Harper said. “We feel very badly about what happened and send our condolences to the families in West Virginia.”

The members of the Viper Mine rescue team have made a group decision not to talk about the incident at this time, Harper said.

Gov. Rod Blagojevich declared Jan. 12 Viper Mine Rescue Crew Day in honor of the Illinois crew.

“The tragedy at the Sago Mine in West Virginia serves as a reminder to all of us what an important yet dangerous job mining can be,” Blagojevich said in a press release. “The level of courage these men displayed is remarkable.”

The Viper Mine has had a rescue team for 20 years, though this is the first time they had been called to a mine rescue. The rescue team members are found on a volunteer basis and complete practice drills on the weekends.

“We are very proud that they were recognized by the Governor, but I suspect they are more concerned with their work at hand,” Harper said.

The Viper Mine rescue team has been called back to the Sago Mine to restore the ventilation system, allowing state and federal investigations to begin.

The state of Illinois has gone two consecutive years without a coal mining death for the first time in state history. Mining is a significant industry, especially in the southern two-thirds of the state.

Illinois coal companies produce 32 million tons of coal annually, behind only Montana and Wyoming in production for the United States, according to the state Office of Mines and Minerals.

Three new coalmines are opening in Illinois in 2006. On the same day he declared the state holiday, Blagojevich added four more inspectors to the state’s Mine Safety division.