The Sago Mine, where 12 miners died in West Virginia’s worst coal mining accident in four decades, will be closed permanently early next year, its owner said Friday.

International Coal Group’s decision to seal the mine near Buckhannon is no surprise: Sago has been sitting idle since ICG stopped producing coal there due to bad geology in March 2007. Friday’s announcement said the mine would close in the first quarter of 2009 but wasn’t more specific.

Sago became synonymous with the dangers miners face when powerful methane gas explosion tore through the underground mine just as two crews of miners were starting work Jan. 2, 2006.

One crew made it out alive, but a second 13-member team was trapped for more than 40 hours in an atmosphere poisoned with carbon monoxide. Only one man from the second team, Randal McCloy Jr., was found alive.

The tragedy was compounded by initial reports that rescuers had found 12 survivors, before the hopes of family members were dashed by word that only McCloy was alive.

Friday’s announcement brought back painful memories for John Groves, whose brother Jerry was one of 12 men who died in the mine.

Groves said he “felt like someone punched me in the gut” and thought not only of his brother, but also of the Utah miners whose bodies have remained entombed in the Crandall Canyon mine since its collapse last year.

“I’m sure there are a lot of people who will be happy that it’s being sealed,” Groves said. “But that’s the first thing that popped into my mind.”

“Our men are out, and they got the proper burial,” he said. “But in a way, their spirits are still there.”

McCloy, through a family spokeswoman, declined comment Friday.

The explosion, along with two other high-profile accidents, prompted sweeping federal and state mine safety legislation that is still being implemented in the industry.

Mines now are required to build far stronger seals at openings to abandoned sections where methane can accumulate and store extra supplies of emergency air underground, among other things.

“It’s a part of our history now and a very big part of the culture of our laws and regulations,” said West Virginia mine safety chief Ron Wooten. “Sago is not a name that will be forgotten by anyone who was living in West Virginia, for sure, on Jan. 2, 2006.”

While ICG stopped producing coal at Sago 21 months ago, the company left the mine open to allow the state to continue researching how lightning might have reached a sealed area filled with methane gas deep underground.

Both West Virginia and federal investigators blamed lightning for the explosion, a conclusion disputed by the United Mine Workers labor union. Sago was a nonunion mine.

A report on the state’s lightning research is due out in January.

“It won’t change our report. It will only supplement it,” Wooten said.

While Sago has been reduced to a research site, it’s not been forgotten.

Groves said the men who have tended the mine since the explosion treat the area where the men died as a sacred space.

“They would go by it, and there was a reverence there. And that will be gone now,” said Groves, who was among the relatives who visited the spot where their loved ones died.

On the other hand, he said, “I’m glad that no other lives will be lost because of safety issues in that mine.”

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