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Sago Mine Disaster: Have People Already Moved On?

NPR Labor Correspondent Frank Langfitt and producer Evie Stone spent two days in Buckhannon, W.Va., this week covering an investigative hearing into the Sago mine disaster. Their work was outstanding, as always. Frank and Evie told me that one of their biggest surprises was how few people showed up. This is something that didn't manage to find its way in any of the pieces, and it's pretty gripping. Frank writes:

The lasting image I'll take from the hearing was Sara Bailey, who lost her father in the mine. After three days of testimony, she took the stage to address the audience. Lining the wall behind her were the black and white photos of the twelve men who had died, including her dad, George Hamner, who everyone called "Junior." For each miner, there was a cross that a 14-year-old family member had made out of Legos.

Bailey ripped the mining company for safety problems. She said she was frustrated that four months after the explosion, no one could explain what caused it.

My father "was my hero, my heart," she said, crying as her body shook. "Because of this, I will never have peace. I will never know what a good night's sleep is. Why was my mother widowed at age 51 — after 32 years of marriage? And why will I have to explain to my future children their grandfather is gone?"

What made the scene even more painful was that most of the seats in the audience were empty. Organizers had set out 350 chairs on the basketball court at West Virginia Wesleyan College, but less than a third of them were filled. I had expected a big crowd. After all, the disaster had dominated national news when it happened in January. And it was the worst coal mine disaster in West Virginia in nearly forty years.

It's hard to say why more people didn't show up. A city councilwoman said the community has already been extemely supportive and the hearings were in the middle of the week. Bob Skinner, who works for the college, says people don't have as strong a personal connection to coal mining as they did years ago because fewer people work underground.

But a clerk at the hotel where we stayed put it like this: "People have kind of moved on."