Sago mine documentary emotional

Sago mine documentary emotional

Harlan County native Carl Shoupe hasn’t met the families who lost loved ones in West Virginia’s Sago Mine disaster. But he shares a brotherhood with them as a former coal miner, and he recently helped re-enact the tragedy in a Discovery Channel feature.

The Discovery Channel filmed part of the two-hour documentary Sago Mine Disaster: On the Other Side at the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum in Harlan County.

The film re-created the tragedy that occurred between Jan. 2 and Jan. 4, 2006. Twelve coal miners were initially thought to be alive, but only one, Randal McCloy, survived in the mine that filled with deadly carbon monoxide. The Sago miner families screened the film Dec. 21 in Buckhannon, West Va.

The documentary airs Jan. 7 at 9 p.m. on the Discovery Channel.

“I cannot express enough how emotional it was,” said Shoupe, who portrayed one of the miners who died. “We’re a brotherhood. When we lose a brother in West Virginia, it’s like losing a neighbor.”

Brook Lapping Productions of London, England produced the film. The company has produced other films for the Discovery Channel, including documentary about United Flight 93, which crashed into a Pennsylvania field during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Josh Weinberg, director of communications for the Discovery Channel, said the Sago Mine documentary includes interviews from victims’ families, rescuers and other mine safety authorities and scientists.

Scenes re-enacting the miner’s final moments were filmed at Portal 31 in mid-November. The site is a non-working coal mine that will be turned into a animatronic tour of the history of coal mining.

“We were very cautious,” Portal 31 project manager Ed Harris said of being part of the film. “We did not want to be part of anything that took any sides in any issue. We just wanted to serve the educational purposes.”

The men in the re-enactment were all from Harlan County and were former coal miners, not professional actors. Shoupe said the film director did not ask re-enactors to portray a specific coal miner who died. Producers based the re-enactments on letters from the victims and from McCloy. The film will also include the letter McCloy’s wrote to his family when he was in the mine, Weinberg said.

“We understand as ex-coal miners, it very easily could have been us,” Harris said.

“It was emotional,” Shoupe said. “You thought of those families in West Virginia. … You definitely feel for them.”

In addition, Harris and Shoupe felt their background as former coal miners brought authenticity to the film. They knew what it meant to seal off a section, and about hammering in the mine to signal their location to the surface. They checked to see whether the re-enactment props would be items that coal miners would actually use.

They also pointed out to the film crew that coal miners get another’s attention in the mine by shaking the lights on their helmets, not by tapping on their shoulders.

“A professional actor wouldn’t have the first clue what to do (in a mine),” Shoupe said.

“All of us have got on those mantrips and went into those mines to make a living for our families, over and over again,” Shoupe said.

Coping with the seriousness of the film was handled by humor on set, including the exchange of regional expressions from the England-based film crew and the locals, Shoupe said.

“Even though it was emotional, we tried to get through with it with some fun, too,” Shoupe said.

Harris and Shoupe hope the film will educate others about coal mining and give them “a better appreciation of what goes on,” Harris said.

“We want it to be a memorial for the folks at Sago,” he said. “We want it to be something solemn, respectful that will help people remember those individuals. They were people with lives, families outside of the mines.”

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