I don’t really know much about mines, or mining disasters, just what I’ve read. This newest one in West Virginia seems both like a familiar tragedy and like something that could’ve and should’ve been prevented by the many, many accidents that have come before. Just in West Virginia, you have the Sago Mine Disaster of 2006, the freshest local memory, and the Farmington Disaster of 1968, one that can’t have already left local lore. Seventy-eight miners died in the Consol No. 9 mine near Farmington. That’s not the kind of thing a state forgets.
In reading about these disasters last night, I was reminded of what seems like the most gruesome detail of all. At some point in most of these disasters, rescuers have to give up hope — and not just in the “pass the official word but keep trying” kind of way. They have to say, that’s it, this is impossible, and then they have to formally make rescue impossible by sealing the mine. When a methane fire is raging, like it did in the Farmington disaster or in the Jim Walter Resource Mine disaster in Alabama in 2001, the mine has to be closed off. In Farmington, with 78 miners still unaccounted for, they sealed the mine with concrete. In Alabama, within 24 hours of the explosion, with 13 miners still inside, they flooded the mine.
Sealing or flooding didn’t kill any of those men; they were dead from fire, from lack of oxygen, from crushing debris long before. But how hard must it be to work on that crew, to know you’re burying your brothers, to work against all hope you might have of a miracle?
I think the hardest job on a rescue crew must be that of the realist, the guy or girl who has to say, “There’s no longer any chance,” who has to argue against miracles and mistakes and just say, it’s over, it’s over, it’s over.
That’s what I think about when I read a story like this: Rescue Effort Suspended at Mine – Death Toll at 25 – NYTimes.com.