Powerful words at mine hearing
WASHINGTON – The handwriting was scratchy but the message on the small paper scrap was powerful and clear.
“I love you both and always have,” George Hamner wrote his wife and daughter as he sat trapped in West Virginia’s Sago Mine on Jan. 2. “I’m in no pain but don’t know how long the air will last.”
Hamner’s daughter, Sara Bailey, held back tears as she read the note publicly for the first time Monday before Democratic lawmakers in a packed and hushed hearing room.
Seven widows and children of miners killed in accidents recounted their stories, often pausing to cry as they exhorted lawmakers to strengthen safety measures after one of the deadliest periods for coal miners in at least a decade. Nineteen coal miners have died this year, including 12 at the Sago mine.
Hamner, who was 54 and had been a miner for more than 30 years, wrote his farewell note more than eight hours after the explosion inside Sago released carbon monoxide that would eventually kill him and 10 others. A 12th miner was killed by the blast.
A previously released letter indicated that miners survived at least 10 hours. It took rescue teams about 40 hours after the explosion to remove the trapped miners.
Hamner said he was “still OK at 2:40 p.m.” but couldn’t hear “any attempts at drilling or rescue.” The miners had shielded themselves behind plastic curtains, but the mine was “full of smoke & fumes so we can’t escape,” Hamner wrote.
Bailey and her mother, Deborah Hamner, received the note about two weeks ago when George Hamner’s lunch cooler was returned to them. The note, on 3-inch-by-5-inch lined paper, was preserved in a small plastic bag.
“It breaks my heart to know there’s better technology that could have saved my husband,” Deborah Hamner told lawmakers, referring to wireless communications used in some mines. They can withstand explosions such as the one in Sago that knocked out underground telephone wires that were the only link with the miners.
“The technology is out there,” said Amber Helms, whose father Terry Helms was killed in Sago. “Why don’t we protect these men? … I never want another family to go through the pain and heartache that our families went through.”
The speakers were invited by Democratic members of Congress trying to maintain public pressure for tougher mine-safety procedures. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., organized the forum to “raise visibility of the tragedy.”
Congressional forums are different from hearings. A hearing is a proceeding that congressional committees use to gather information, and hearings can be called only by the majority party. A forum is organized by a minority party to generate publicity on an issue that the party feels should be brought to public attention.
Steve Forde, a spokesman for Republicans on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, said there are no immediate plans for holding a hearing, but that could change after more research.