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A tribute to the Sago miners

To view a PDF of the Sago tribute page, please see the right side of the screen.

With very few words, the families, friends and neighbors of the 13 miners who were trapped in the Sago mine have painted a vivid picture of the men — hard-working men, men of great faith in God, loving husbands and fathers.

Here, we recount a few of those descriptions — including that of Randal McCloy, the young miner who was the sole survivor of the tragedy.

Today has been set aside by Gov. Joe Manchin as an official day of remembrance for the 12 miners who died. An “Honor, Hope and Healing” service is scheduled for 2 p.m. today in Wesley Chapel at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon. The doors will open at 12:30 p.m., and attendees are invited to a memory tent on the Chapel Oval to write messages to the families in memory books.

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Tom Anderson

Thomas “Tom” Paul Anderson, 39, had a decade of experience in the coal mines. He operated the shuttle car, the machine that picks up the newly mined coal and shuttles it away. He lived at Rock Cave, Upshur County.

A friend remembered him as “a wonderful family man, a strong Christian person.” He attended the Church of God in Lewis County.

Anderson was a father of four sons, one of whom preceded him in death. He had been married to Lynda Hyre Anderson for more than 15 years.

Anderson enjoyed hunting, fishing and the outdoors.

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Alva ‘Marty’ Bennett

Alva Martin “Marty” Bennett loved coal mining, his family said.

He came from a coal-mining family. As a young man, Bennett followed his own father into the mines. His only son, Russell, worked at the Sago Mine on the shift after his dad’s. His brother-in-law, Roger Perry, was one of a group of miners who escaped the explosion.

Mining “has been his life,” said his aunt, Marie Bonner. “Marty was very knowledgeable and such a good worker; he could do just about anything.”

Bennett was a continuous-miner operator at Sago, running the machine that cut the coal out of the ground. He also owned and operated his own backhoe and bulldozer service. He enjoyed the outdoors, and hunting, fishing and four-wheeling with his son and close friends.

Bennett, 51, lived in Buckhannon, where he was born. He had been married to Judy Ann Lantz Bennett for more than 32 years.

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Jim Bennett

Each day, when Jim Bennett came home from his shift at the Sago Mine, he began to pray for the men who went underground on the shift after him.

The eldest of the miners, 61-year-old James A. Bennett was the one who, while he and his 12 fellow miners were trapped, wrote a timeline detailing events for 10 hours after the early morning explosion.

He “wanted everybody to know to tell my mom that he loved her,” said his daughter, Ann Meredith. “And he wanted me and my brother to know that he loved us.”

Bennett was a shuttle car operator with at least a quarter-century of experience. His half-brother, Donald Marsh, said Bennett loved the mines.

This was to have been Bennett’s last year in the mines. He had planned to retire.

Bennett was born in Randolph County. He lived in Volga, Barbour County.

He attended Buckhannon Union Mission Church. He had been married to Lily M. Foster Bennett for more than 43 years.

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Jerry Groves

Jerry Lee Groves was a roof bolter, securing the roof over his fellow miners’ heads to preserve their tunnel underground. He spent about three decades in the mines, following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and another brother.

Groves, 56, had hoped to retire soon.

He had a daughter, his obituary stated. He had been married to Deborah A. Groves for more than 28 years.

Groves was born in Buckhannon, and lived in Cleveland, Webster County. He was a member of the Cleveland Independent Baptist Church.

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George Junior Hamner

George Hamner, known as Junior, had to quit the mines when his weight got out of control and he dedicated himself to his small cattle farm. But after having stomach surgery and dropping about 200 pounds, friends say, he was back underground to help fill a demand for seasoned miners created by the recent industry boom caused by high oil and natural gas prices.

Hamner was a shuttle car operator with 26 years of experience. He was 54. His residence was listed as Gladyfork.

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Terry Helms

Terry Michael Helms was the fire boss. He had been a coal miner for more than 30 of his 50 years. He was a father of two.

His family never talked about what he did for a living, said his son Nick Helms, because “he never wanted us to worry.”

Nick Helms said his father “worked 12-hour days and would come home dog-tired.” He wanted a different life for his children; he encouraged Nick, an avid golfer like himself, to move to South Carolina six months ago to pursue his dream of becoming a professional golfer.

At age 50, Terry Helms was planning to give matrimony another try. His fiancée, Virginia Moore, said he never really expressed any fears about working in the mine.

“He didn’t talk too much about his work — he pretty much left it at the mine,” she said.

He enjoyed hunting and fishing, and he was a life member of the North American Hunting Club.

Helms was born in Morgantown. He was a member of the St. Zita Catholic Church of Masontown. The Most Rev. Michael Bransfield, bishop of the Diocese of Wheeling-Charleston, presided at his funeral liturgy.

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Jesse Jones

Jesse Jones was remembered as a hard worker, someone fellow miners could always count on.

He was remembered as a loving brother and father to his two girls. Jones, 44, spent half of his life underground in the mine, but he enjoyed hunting, fishing, camping, pitching horseshoes and digging ramps.

Jones’ brother, Owen, also worked at the Sago Mine. He was one of a group of miners who escaped the explosion.

The two brothers came from a family of coal miners. Their grandfather died in a coal mine blast.

Jones was a roof-bolter operator with 16 years of experience.

He was a Protestant.

Jones lived in Pickens, Randolph County. He was born in Buckhannon.

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David Lewis

Coal mining was a relatively new career for David Lewis — a job he turned to because it allowed him to be at home at night with his young daughters while his wife, Samantha, worked on a master’s degree in health-care administration.

Until a couple of years ago, Lewis, 28, had worked in timber and construction, but those jobs kept him away.

Lewis had three daughters.

He operated a roof bolter at the Sago Mine. He was a 1995 graduate of Philip Barbour High School, and an avid hunter and fisherman.

Lewis was born in Elkins and lived in Thornton, Taylor County.

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Martin Toler Jr.

A devoted Christian, Martin Toler Jr. left this note for his family:

“Tell all I’ll see them on the other side. Jr.,” he wrote on the back of an insurance application form he had in his pocket while trapped in the Sago Mine. “It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep. I love you.”

Toler, 51, was a deacon, a Sunday school teacher and adult Bible study teacher at Stump Chapel Church in Tesla, Braxton County.

He is remembered as “a doting and loving husband, father and grandfather,” his obituary read. “He loved life to its fullest and was a strong witness and blessing to all who knew him.”

Toler had a daughter and a son; he and his son had mined coal in a different mine for four years.

He was the section foreman. He had 32 years of experience and had worked in mines most of his life.

He was a 1971 graduate of Oceana High School. He had been married to Mary Lou Russell Toler for 32 years.

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Fred Ware Jr.

Fred G. “Bear” Ware Jr. had always told his family he’d probably never retire. “I’ll probably die in the mines,” he’d say.

Ware, a 58-year-old continuous-miner operator, might have had the most years of mining experience of anyone on his highly experienced crew. He started at age 18 in coal seams so thin “he had to crawl on his knees,” said his ex-wife, Brenda Newcomer.

Ware was about to remarry. He and his fiancée, Loretta Ables of Sago, were planning a Valentine’s Day wedding.

He had worked through the holidays, except for New Year’s Day. He also had considered taking off Monday — the day of the disaster.

Ware previously had broken his ankle in the mine during a rock fall.

The son and grandson of miners, Ware loved the cool and damp inside the Earth, said his daughter, Peggy Cohen.

“He wouldn’t have done anything else,” she said.

Ware lived just across the river from the opening of the mine, in a little white house with a coal-burning furnace.

He belonged to the Sago Baptist Church, which became an impromptu shelter for 150 of the miners’ friends and loved ones during the 42-hour search for the miners. Ware’s memorial service was held there.

“As I talked to his miner friends, they’d say, ‘You know, Fred was always worried about someone else getting hurt,’” the Rev. Wease Day said. He said Ware was good-natured and loved to talk. He remembered him as the sort of man who didn’t mind being awakened to help install gutters at the church.

Ware was buried in a flannel shirt and camouflage cap.

He was born in Adrian, just a few miles away in Upshur County. He was a father of two.

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Jackie Weaver

Jackie Lynn Weaver was remembered by relatives as a family man. He lived in a close-knit community on Mount Liberty Road in Philippi, where he was born.

Weaver was the section electrician. He had 26 years of experience.

He had been married to Charlotte Poe Weaver for more than 13 years. He was the father of one daughter and two sons; one of his sons preceded him in death.

He was a member of the Corley United Methodist Church. He enjoyed the outdoors and was an avid hunter and fisherman.

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Marshall Winans

Marshall Winans had worked at the Sago Mine for six years, but had been a minister for 20, said his sister-in-law, Lisa Ferris.

Winans, 50, had been a miner for 23 years. He was a scoop operator at Sago.

Winans was a resident of Talbott, Barbour County. He was a member of the United Mine Workers union. He also was a member of the Loyal Order of Moose, Lodge 598, of Buckhannon.

Winans was an avid hunter and fisherman and enjoyed NASCAR.

He was a Methodist.

Winans had been married to the former Pamela Denise Pharis for more than 31 years. He had three daughters.

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Randal McCloy Jr.

The only survivor among the 13 trapped miners, Randal McCloy knew the dangers of coal mining — but he risked them anyway, to make a better living for his young family.

At age 26, McCloy is the youngest of the 13 miners. He is a licensed electrician, and his father said he was planning to go into engineering. But for the past few years, he had been coal mining to earn good money, driving an hour each way from his home in Simpson, Taylor County, to the Sago Mine.

His family — wife Anna, 4-year-old son Randal III and 1-year-old daughter Isabel — are McCloy’s “No. 1 priority,” said Rick McGee, his 36-year-old brother-in-law and fellow Sago miner. The two live next door to each other.

Every day before McCloy went into the mine, he told Anna, “God is with you,” said his younger sister, Lila Muncy.

Randal and Anna met in grade school, and they have been together for 12 years.

His father, Randal McCloy Sr., said his son is a careful miner. McGee said his brother-in-law is “a really smart person” whose good physical condition must have helped him survive in the mine for nearly 42 hours, breathing toxic gases.

“When most people are drinking pop, he ’s drinking milk and juice,” McGee said. “He’s in good shape. That had to have helped him.”

McCloy was still in a coma Saturday. His family has been with him in the hospital, playing music he likes — Metallica — and he has been visited by country singer Hank Williams Jr., after Anna remarked that her husband enjoyed his music.

The information for this page was compiled by staff writer Tara Tuckwiller from obituaries, interviews and published reports.


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