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Friday, January 06, 2006

Miners left farewell notes to loved ones

Miners left farewell notes to loved ones

By Allen G. Breed

TALLMANSVILLE — Some of the 12 coal miners who died in the Sago Mine disaster scrawled farewell notes assuring their loved ones that their final hours trapped underground amid toxic gases were not spent in agony.

“Tell all I see them on the other side,” read the brief note found with the body of 51-year-old mine foreman Martin Toler Jr. “It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep. I love you Jr.”

Tom Toler, Martin’s older brother who worked 30 years in the mine with him, said Thursday that the note was “written very lightly and very loosely” in block letters on the back of an insurance application form his brother had in his pocket.

“I took it to mean that it was written in the final stages,” the brother said. “I’d call it more or less scribbling.”

No note was found on the body of 59-year-old machine operator Fred Ware, but daughter Peggy Cohen said she and other relatives who went to identify bodies at a temporary morgue were told by the medical examiner that some of the men wrote letters with a similar message: “Your dad didn’t suffer.”

“The notes said they weren’t suffering, they were just going to sleep,” said Cohen, who planned to retrieve her father’s belongings to see if he had included such a note in his lunch box.

The miners died after an explosion that rocked the mine Monday morning. Eleven of the victims were discovered nearly 42 hours after the blast, at the deepest point of the mine, about 21/2 miles from the entrance, behind a curtain-like barrier stretched across an opening to keep out carbon monoxide, a deadly byproduct of combustion. The 12th victim was believed to have been killed by the blast itself.

John Groves, whose brother Jerry was one of the victims, told The Associated Press that he knew that at least four notes were left behind. He said his family did not receive a note.

Autopsies were under way Thursday, and officials would not comment on the causes of death or how long the men might have survived.

Cohen said her father had the peaceful look of someone who died from carbon monoxide, and the only mark on his body was a bruise on his chest.

“It comforts me to know he didn’t suffer and he wasn’t bruised or crushed,” she said. “I didn’t need a note. I think I needed to visualize and see him.”

The sole survivor, 26-year-old Randal McCloy Jr., remained in critical condition in a coma, struggling with the effects of oxygen deprivation to his vital organs. Doctors said he may have suffered brain damage. On Thursday afternoon, he was moved from a hospital in Morgantown to one in Pittsburgh for hyperbaric oxygen treatment.

The treatment helps get oxygen to the body’s tissues, including the brain, and can help increase blood cells to fight infections or promote healing of injuries.

“Certainly Mr. McCloy is going to have a tough course,” said Dr. John Prescott at the Morgantown hospital. “We just don’t know at this point how things will turn out.”

The miner’s father, Randal McCloy Sr., told The Associated Press that he believes “in his heart” that his son’s mostly 50-something colleagues decided during their last, desperate hours to share their dwindling supply of oxygen with his son because he was the youngest of the group and had two young children.

“Those men were like brothers. They took care of each other,” he said.

There was no immediate confirmation from officials that the men shared their oxygen.

Each of the miners had breathing apparatus designed to provide up to an hour’s worth of oxygen, but an expert said that time could conceivably be extended.

“A lot of it depends on the circumstances and how big you are and how much air you suck,” said Terry Farley, an administrator with West Virginia’s Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training.

Speaking of seeing his son on a hospital ventilator, the elder McCloy broke down in tears. “I bent over and kissed his head. I told him that I loved him,” he said.

The first of the funerals are set to begin on Saturday.

Federal and state investigators were at the mine Thursday, seeking the cause of the explosion and a more detailed explanation for the miscommunication among rescuers that had relatives believing for three hours that 12 of the miners had actually survived.

Coal mine explosions are typically caused by buildups of naturally occurring methane gas or highly combustible coal dust in the air, but what exactly triggered that explosion remained unclear.

The explosion was West Virginia’s deadliest coal mining accident since 1968, when 78 men were killed in an explosion in Marion County. Sago was the nation’s worst coal mining disaster since a pair of explosions at a mine in Brookwood, Ala., killed 13 people in September 2001.

A fund to aid children of the dead West Virginia miners, established with an initial gift of $2 million from Sago Mine operator International Coal Group Inc., grew rapidly Thursday with a $250,000 donation from one of ICG’s mining competitors, Massey Energy Co.

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Barbour County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy John Hawkins places coal miner helmets on four crosses which Hawkins erected on the courthouse lawn in Philippi Thursday. Four miners from Barbour County died this week in the Sago Mine disaster. AP PHOTO (Click for larger image)

A letter released by the Toler family that was written by Martin Toler Jr., who died with 11 other miners in the Sago Mine. The note was given to Martin’s brother, Tom Toler, by the coroner. It reads, “Tell all I see them on the other side JR I love you It wasn’t bad just went to sleep.” AP PHOTO (Click for larger image)

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