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First Joyful News, Then a Tragedy About Miners

After relatives were told 12 men were found alive, officials say hours later that only one survived.

January 04, 2006|Jonathan Peterson and Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writers

TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. — Only hours after family members were told that 12 coal miners had been found alive, officials announced this morning that in fact only one had survived Monday morning's explosion.

Jubilation had broken out when word that rescuers near the mine entrance signaled that they had found a dozen men 41 hours after the deadly explosion. But three hours later, families learned that only one person, Ronald McCloy, had been transported alive to the hospital.

Ben Hatfield, president of the International Coal Group, told the families gathered at the Sago Baptist Church that "there had been a lack of communication, that what we were told was wrong and that only one survived," said John Groves, whose brother Jerry Groves was one of the trapped miners.

At that point, chaos broke out in the church and a fight started.

Hatfield said the erroneous information spread rapidly when people overheard cell phone calls between rescuers and the rescue command center. In reality, rescuers had confirmed finding 12 miners and were checking their vital signs, he said.

"The initial report from the rescue team to the command center indicated multiple survivors," Hatfield said during a news conference. "That information spread like wildfire, because it had come from the command center. It quickly got out of control."

Hatfield said the company waited to correct the information until it knew more about the rescue.

The body of a 13th miner was found earlier in the night by searchers, leading then to grim speculation that the other men were probably also dead. But just before midnight, the roar of jubilant shouts from rescue crews near the mine entrance signaled that searchers proceeding cautiously 260 feet below ground had found all the remaining miners.

"They're alive! They're alive!" family members whooped. Ignoring a pelting rain, they dashed toward Sago Baptist Church, where families had congregated for 41 agonizing hours since the miners were trapped.

While the church bell pealed, relatives hugged and shook their heads in amazement. Lisa Ferris, a resident whose uncle was one of those originally said to be alive, raced to the church door in her bare feet. Sirens wailed as five Upshur County ambulances converged on the mine site.

Eddie Hamner, waiting grimly near the church for news about his missing cousin, Junior Hamner, bolted upright when the bell sounded. "I was just standing here when the bell started ringing and you knew something good was happening," Hamner said. "You just have to have faith in God -- and in the rescue."

A few minutes after word came of the rescue, the throng around the mine, several hundred strong, broke into a chorus of the hymn "How Great Thou Art" in the chilly night air.

Before the later discovery that the information was in error, the scenes of midnight euphoria from the muddy church lot were stirringly reminiscent of the celebration in Somerset, Pa., three years ago after nine drenched miners were pulled from a deep shaft after spending 77 hours trapped underground.

Earlier Tuesday, search teams had recovered the body of a trapped miner after grueling daylong efforts to rescue the men amid dangerous levels of carbon monoxide. The wrenching news of the first fatality and the deepening mystery over the fate of the missing men gripped officials and anguished relatives in a tumult of emotion as night fell.

"It's a nightmare; it's the worst news we could bring," Hatfield said. . Hatfield's voice broke repeatedly as he described the explosion. "We're devastated and the families are devastated."

Reporting evidence of a powerful explosion that appeared to have detonated in an abandoned area at the far end of the mine, rescuers also found the mine shaft tram that had transported the missing miners. But the metal bus was empty and showed no sign of blast damage -- hints that the trapped men might have tried to flee the explosion "under their own power," Hatfield said.

Several relatives fainted when they were informed of the miner's death by company officials and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin during an early evening briefing inside the Sago Baptist Church. Others rushed ashen-faced from the scene, uncertain of the identity of the dead miner, each fearing he was a loved one.

"Everybody's just broke up in the church," said Tamila Swiger, a local resident who emerged from the church after the earlier briefing.

After comforting families, Manchin said he was "still praying for that miracle, but the odds are pretty much against us." The governor was visibly subdued, but also said he was "flabbergasted" by evidence that the miners had not been injured by the initial blast and appeared to have fled with their equipment.

"There's no disturbance, no buckets, no anything," he said.

By nightfall, the searchers had reached a remote section of the mine that showed clear signs of an explosion. Seals that had kept an abandoned part of the mine separate from the working mine shaft had been blown apart.

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