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Sago Mine film an intimate look at victims, way of life

MORGANTOWN — Samantha Lewis still wakes to the sound of husband David lacing his boots, though now, it is only in her dreams.

Owen Jones is still haunted by the moment he was forced out of the Sago Mine, leaving his trapped brother Jesse to the deadly gas that would ultimately kill him.

And little Justin Weaver, who can finally say the word “dead,” is learning to live in a world without father Jackie — or, as he calls him, “Superman.”

They are intimate, painful moments, but moments the families of the Sago Mine disaster are finally ready to share.

The world wept with them after a January explosion at the mine near Buckhannon, and it may weep again Jan. 7, when The Discovery Channel airs a two-hour documentary on the 12 men who died and the families they left behind.

“It’s important that people know who Marty Bennett was and how much he did for his family and the impact of his loss,” says sister-in-law Pam Campbell, whose family participated in the film. “They will see a man who loved his son and his wife more than anything, who went to work every day ... and if he’d come out of that mine, he’d say, ‘What can I do to help you tomorrow?’

“The world will need a box of tissues, just as they did that day,” Campbell says. “This will be a universal suffering again, but it will show them what kind of men they cried for.”

Families will get the chance to see “Sago Mine Disaster: On the Other Side” in a private screening before Christmas.

Brook Lapping Productions of London began filming in October, interviewing most of the 12 families, some surviving workers and inspectors who were nearby when rescuers reached the victims.

One miner — fireboss Terry Helms — died in the blast; 11 others succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning after prolonged entrapment about 250 feet underground.

The men were found leaning against the wall or lying in a fetal position, as if asleep, rescuer Jim Klug said in an interview with investigators.

Two lay apart from the others, arms crossed, apparently “placed in a funeral home position, laid down, feet straight nice and perfect,” by those who survived longer.

Only Randal McCloy Jr. survived more than 40 hours of exposure, a feat that even his doctors call a miracle. He didn’t participate in the film because he is still recovering from the physical and emotional trauma.

Brook Lapping also produced “The Flight That Fought Back,” an Emmy-nominated documentary on United 93, the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Executive producer John Grassie says the film is not about assigning blame for the blast, which state officials say may have been sparked by a lightning strike. Nor is the movie a re-creation of events between Jan. 2 and Jan. 4, Grassie says.

Rather, it’s a look at the men, their families and “the very deep and very important culture of coal mining.”

“It’s not a job,” says Grassie, based in Silver Spring, Md. “It’s a way of life.”

Mining has dangers that families live with every day, and he says it’s important for people outside the nation’s coalfields to appreciate that.

“Here in the Northeast, there is a coal miner on the end of most of the light bulbs we see. It’s an important reference to the vital place of coal mining in America,” Grassie says. “We take it for granted. The people there don’t take it for granted.”

Weeks after the blast, some of the men who escaped returned to the mine, “not because they’re heartless, but because this is the reality of what they do.”

And nearly a year after the tragedy, both the families of the Sago miners and the men who still work there must learn to live with the fact that they may never have all the answers about what happened that day.

State investigators, like those hired by the mine’s owner, have concluded that an unusually powerful lightning strike ignited 400,000 cubic feet of methane gas that had accumulated naturally in a sealed-off area of the mine. Though the path the electricity followed remains unclear, investigators say every other potential cause has been ruled out.

The filmmakers resisted the urge to point fingers, Grassie says, because it appears no single person, action or oversight is at fault.

“That would be simple, but it’s not true,” he says. “So here we are, left with the consequences of the tragedy, trying to find meaning.”

For him, the meaning is in the courage the miners showed during those final hours in the dark, sharing what little oxygen they had with each other.

At least five men scrawled goodbye notes on scraps of paper in the dark, including Weaver, Lewis, George “Junior” Hamner and James Bennett.

In his, foreman Martin Toler offered not only love, but comfort.

“Tell all I see them on the other side,” he wrote. “It wasn’t bad. I just went to sleep.”

“They are testaments to courage and the finest elements in all of us,” Grassie says. “The resolve and the wisdom in the words of those miners to their families is nothing short of remarkable.

“These are qualities that we would hope are in each of us, but are not commonly experienced.”


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