Sunday, January 08, 2006


Like most people, I was stunned by the horror of the Sago Mine incident last week, and not by the fact that twelve miners died, of course, since mine accidents are hardly unknown (it's one of a handful of jobs I wouldn't take no matter what the pay), but rather by the awful dropping of the ball in the news outlets the other night. I heard nothing, myself, until I got up the morning after the bodies had been found, and when I went online for a few minutes before work, I saw that the men were, in fact, dead, and I thought, "Well, that's that." Until, of course, I got to work and saw the Buffalo News headline that the miners had been found alive.

Somehow, I don't think that the "Dewey Defeats Truman" thing is ever going to be quite so funny again.

But I didn't realize, until I watched the news on TV last night as the funerals began, that the Sago disaster happened very close to Elkins, WV, where my family lived for a year when I was in second grade. (My father taught for a year at the college there.) The towns mentioned in the news reports -- Philippi, Buckhannon -- are familiar to me as towns we drove through many times while we went on weekend excursions to visit family in Pittsburgh, three hours to the north. One of my best friends from that year, whose first name was Randall (I no longer recall his last name), had a father who worked in the coal mines in Philippi.

It's kind of weird, seeing tiny Appalachian towns I haven't walked in over twenty-five years suddenly named in the national headlines, which I suspect hasn't happened since I lived there and then-President Jimmy Carter came to appear in the town's annual parade. (To this day, Carter is the only President I have seen in person, although I felt an equal thrill when Air Force One flew over The Store's parking lot almost two years ago as President Bush came to Buffalo for a speech.) My memories of my year in West Virginia are very limited, of course -- a handful of names, including my second-grade teacher, Mrs. Pnakovich (no doubt the unusual name is why I remember her) -- but I remember the region as being very mountainous, green, poor, and a little sad. I remember it as a place where you might talk to a very old person and have them refer to their fathers coming home from "the war", and meaning the Civil War.

Here is the Google Maps satellite image of the region. I really don't know where the Sago Mine is specifically, but I suspect it's somewhere in that vast swath of green mountain region in the center and lower right of the photo. The large-ish town at the right is Elkins (you can even make out the 'X' of the runways of the town's airport), and the other large town, to the west after you take that road through the mountain ridge, is Buckhannon. And beneath all those green hills is coal for the mining, and in some places, the bodies of those who mined it.

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