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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 January 2006, 17:31 GMT
West Virginia's devastated community
Friends and relatives of trapped US miners at a local church
The Baptist Church has been one of the focuses of the drama
For the West Virginia families who have lost 12 of their loved ones, mining has long been a way of life - as have the risks that go with it.

The state has been a major coal mining region in the United States since the 19th Century.

The culture of mining is woven into the very fabric of the state: a statue of a miner graces the state Capitol complex and the state's seal depicts a man with a pickaxe.

Sago mine, where 12 miners lost their lives, is located in the Appalachian coal country. According to some commentators, coal mining in some regions of the Appalachia is a dangerous industry. The easy coal has already been mined and what is left can be difficult to extract.

Sago is located in Upshur County, a remote part of America's poorest state, which was once a major front in President Lyndon B Johnson's war against poverty.

Today mining - despite its dangers - is seen as one of the jobs in which people can make good money without having a college degree. According to the state Coal Association, West Virginia miners earn an average of $55,000 a year.

'Risking lives'

"It's the highest-paying job around, and of course, it's the most dangerous job, too," one resident, Rick McGee, was quoted as saying.

The Sago mine is one of three deep mines in the county
"Everybody thinks you're making a lot of money. Yeah, but we're risking our lives every day. We're just here for our families. That's the only reason," he told the Associated Press.

There are three operating deep mines in the county, including the one at Sago, which runs 24-hours a day. However, Upshur County itself is a marginal producer in the state.

Despite this, almost every family knows someone who works in the mining industry. Generations of men from some extended families have worked in the mines.

Sago itself is a tiny community of about 35 residents, situated along the banks of a small river. Nearby Buckhannon is the largest town in the county with a population of about 8,000.

Hymns

Away from the mine, the focus of the drama of the past few days has been the Sago Baptist Church, about half a mile away from the mine in the town of Tallmansville.

Here at the white, wooden chapel, nestling against a hillside the miners' families kept vigil. Veteran miners from around the county dropped into the church to offer their support.

It is a deeply religious community and the sounds of the piano and hymns emanated from the chapel throughout the rescue operation.

News that the men had been found alive was met with rousing hymns and the ringing of church bells. A "miracle" was declared. But hopes were dashed a few hours later when the news turned out to be false.

Despite its long association with mining, accidents of this scale are not something residents of Upshur County are familiar with.

In October 2003, one man was killed in a roof fall.

The Sago Mine disaster was West Virginia's deadliest mining accident since November 1968, when 78 men - including the uncle of state Governor Joe Manchin, died in an explosion at a mine elsewhere in the county.




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