ST. LOUIS – One of the rescuers of the lone survivor of the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia said Thursday the 12 dead men he helped pull from the underground tomb appeared hauntingly at peace, as if on a break.
"All I can tell you is they were all at rest," Brett Bushong told The Associated Press.
Bushong, 26, belongs to a mine-rescue crew, one of many summoned to the Sago Mine after the Jan. 2 explosion. His crew was assigned the grim task of recovering bodies — and any survivors — largely because the central Illinois mine where he works is owned by the same company that owns Sago.
Bushong is the first member of his rescue crew to talk publicly about the experience.
A month later, he said his memories of the dead miners cloistered together hundreds of feet below the earth's surface continue to gnaw at him.
One Sago miner died in the explosion, while 12 others were trapped in the mine and exposed to deadly carbon monoxide for more than 41 hours. All but Randal McCloy Jr. had died by the time searchers found them.
As an emergency medical technician and volunteer firefighter, Bushong said he was accustomed to handling trauma victims. But Sago's dead, he said, simply looked at rest.
Speaking by telephone from his home in Athens, Ill., Bushong said the bodies already had begun stiffening from rigor mortis and all were cold to the touch.
"What bothered me was that it looked like the way it is when I'm at home (at the Viper Mine), when we have down time and everybody in our unit would all get around in a central point and all talk about things, joke around," he said.
"That's the way they looked to me, the way they were all sitting. It looked like I could have said, `Hey, guys, it's time to go home."'
Bushong, who works as a diesel mechanic at the Viper Mine near Williamsville, Ill., said some of the dead were sitting, some lying.
"One gentleman had his hands together; he'd been praying," he said. "They all died in peace."
Bushong and others in the group helped retrieve notes each miner had scrawled, finding the notes either on the miners' bodies or in their lunch boxes.
"None of us read it. We didn't want to tamper with it," Bushong said. "We just wanted to respect them."
Doctors have described McCloy as being within "moments if not hours from death" when he arrived at a West Virginia hospital on Jan. 4. He is continuing to recover.
Bushong said the Illinois crew played no role in the tragic miscommunication that led to the mistaken belief that 12 of the 13 miners had been rescued alive the day after the explosion.
Since the Sago disaster, West Virginia has enacted new safety rules prompted by that tragedy and a Jan. 19 coal mine fire that killed two more miners.
Investigators continue to try to pinpoint the explosion's cause.