Relatives of the 13 miners had gathered in Sago Baptist Church, a 130-year-old white clapboard building in a steep wooded hallow not far from the coal pit owned by Wilbur Ross.
Sago Mine Number One had been just another “distressed property” scarfed up by the Palm Beach billionaire dubbed the “King of Bankruptcy.” Lately, he’s better known as Donald Trump’s nominee for secretary of commerce.
The Wilbur Ross business model was to buy failing steel mills, textile mills and coal mines, then jettison the unions with their niggling work rules, reduce wages, drop health care, renege on pension obligations and cut operating costs down to the proverbial bone.
But running a coal mine on the cheap was not like laying off cashiers at Walmart. Two miles under the earth’s surface, cost cutting comes with consequences. On Jan. 2, 2006, the consequences were deadly.
In 2005, the feds had cited Sago Mine Number One for 208 safety violations, 96 considered “serious and substantial,” including roof falls, improper ventilation, blocked escape passages and piles of combustible materials. Nineteen days before catastrophe struck, a federal inspector had cited the company for “a high degree of negligence” for allowing potentially explosive coal dust to accumulate in the mine.
Union miners would have refused to work in those conditions. Except, there was no union at Sago.
In the year before the accident that killed 12 miners, Ross’ coal mine had been cited for 208 safety violations.
After the Jan. 2 underground explosion trapped 13 miners in a smoke-choked shaft, several of the men discovered that their emergency air packs were inoperable. (The mine foreman was later indicted for falsifying safety check reports.)
I was among the throng of press waiting outside the old church 41 hours later when word came that rescuers had finally busted through the rubble. All but one of the 13 miners had died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
This is old news, of course. Except that our would-be populist of a president-elect, the self-proclaimed champion of coal miners, the candidate who carried every county in West Virginia, has nominated this same Wilbur Ross to be his secretary of commerce.
South Florida knows Ross as a member of high society in Palm Beach, where he owns a $22 million, 15,500-square-foot mansion called Windsong on the Intracoastal Waterway (celebrated in Architectural Digest), a mile or so down the road from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago.
He’s a hell of a long way from Tallmansville, West Virginia, where folks don’t christen their home with anything more elaborate than Fred’s Place.
Ross, 79, has a pretty wife, his third, much younger of course (apparently a prerequisite in the Trump administration). Hilary Geary Ross (described as a “society scribe” by Vogue magazine) also happens to be the writer behind “Palm Beach People,” a photo book featuring some of her more notable neighbors, including Donald and Melania Trump. Wilbur and Hilary boast an art collection worth $125 million (according to Haute Living, which tracks this sort of extravagance). They also have an apartment in a famous Manhattan building and a snazzy summer estate in the Hamptons. They call that house Fairfield.
Ross is among several billionaires and multimillionaires joining Trump’s populist revolution. The Washington Post reports that this will be the wealthiest administration ever, 10 times richer than runner-up George W. Bush’s gang. This includes Steven Mnuchin, a former Goldman Sachs executive and big-time hedge fund guy Trump named to oversee the Treasury Department,
Billionaire Betsy DeVos was nominated to be Trump’s Secretary of Education. Todd Ricketts, of the Chicago Cubs Ricketts, is said to be Trump’s choice for assistant commerce secretary. Multi-billionaire Harold Hamm is on the short list for energy secretary. Trump has also been flirting with Goldman Sachs President Gary Cohn.
His choice for transportation secretary is Elaine Chao, daughter of shipping magnate James Si-Cheng Chao (rich enough to donate $40 million to the Harvard Business School in 2012) and wife of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. They remember Chao’s name around coal fields for her stint as secretary of labor under George W. Bush. As the great coal industry reporter Ken Ward of the Charleston Gazette noted this week in his blog Coal Tattoo, Chao’s department stopped work on new mine safety regulations, cut the inspection budget “and encouraged regulators to regulate less and cooperate more with a highly hazardous industry with a history of death and disaster.”
Those of us gathered at the Sago Baptist Church on that cold January day witnessed what cost cutting and tepid regulation came to.
No one saw Wilbur Ross at Sago after the catastrophe. He didn’t come around to offer solace to the families waiting at the old white church overlooking the Buckhannon River. (Though he later donated $2 million to the survivors.) He told New York magazine that he had worried that if he had made the journey to West Virginia, “I would just be in the way.”
West Virginians didn’t much appreciate that sentiment. But it’s easy to understand why Trump’s billionaire buddy stayed away from the coal fields. Weather that time of year is so much more pleasant in Palm Beach.