In coal country there's a simple, stern equation on which the well being of each miner depends - that on most days the rewards outweigh the risks. At the Sago mine in Tallmansville, W.Va., Monday was not one of those days.
An explosion at 6:30 a.m. triggered a tragedy that took the lives of 12 men. Men like Jerry Lee Groves, who loved the work and scoffed at the danger.
Men like Terry Helms, who dug coal in part so his son could work at becoming a professional golfer. Men like David Lewis, who trained to be a diesel mechanic but ended up a miner because of a lack of job opportunities.
You hear that a lot in coal country - lack of opportunity - and so the pits have no shortage of miners. But that should not become an excuse for any company to take worker protection lightly. Nor should it tempt regulators in West Virginia, which enjoys 40,000 direct jobs from coal mining and leads the nation in underground coal production, to demand less than the highest standard of safety.
At the Sago mine, a non-union facility owned by International Coal Group, safety violations have been common. In 2005 the mine had 208 citations and $24,000 in fines from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, a huge leap from the 68 citations and $9,515 in fines in 2004.
The only encouragement is that ICG took over the mine from its previous owner in November, and there were fewer citations in the fourth quarter (46) than in the third (70).
Also down in the last quarter were the number of "significant and substantial" violations and "orders" requiring immediate action - more serious categories of offense. Although that may suggest an improving trend toward safety at the Sago mine, the sudden loss of a dozen workers is as indelible a mark on the operation as it is on the men's families.
The investigations that follow this tragedy will seek not only the cause of the accident but should also explore a cruel twist that compounded the pain of the miners' loved ones: the release of erroneous information that the 12 had survived, which led to three hours of jubilation before the real and tragic news was made official.
For that, these families have suffered more than others whose men perished in the mines. It's up to safety officials - both state and federal - and mining companies to ensure that there are no more Sagos.