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West Virginia Mine Tragedy

Doomed Miners Fought to Live

The 11 tried to ward off toxic gas, officials said, but too many hours passed without rescue.

January 05, 2006|Jonathan Peterson and Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writers

SAGO, W.Va. — Eleven miners who perished in the Sago Mine were still alive after fleeing the initial shaft explosion and barricaded themselves behind a plastic curtain they erected to stave off deadly carbon monoxide, mining company officials said Wednesday. But the miners' training and precautions proved futile while critical hours passed without rescue.

As doctors treated the disaster's only survivor, federal and state safety officials launched wide-ranging investigations of mine conditions and other factors that may have contributed to the men's deaths. Another miner apparently died during the explosion, which officials traced to a sealed area at the far end of the sloping 2-mile-long mineshaft.

The anxious two-day vigil that ended with the grim recovery of the miners gave way to recriminations as mining company officials conceded that a series of flawed decisions and miscommunications had raised false hopes among the missing men's families.

A tight-lipped Bennett K. Hatfield, president and chief executive of the International Coal Group Inc., which owns the Sago Mine, expressed regret that families were led to believe the miners had been rescued Tuesday night. Instead, all the men but one were found dead -- news withheld from unsuspecting families for three hours, during which they celebrated the miners' supposed survival.

Hatfield said poor communications with searchers underground caused company and government officials at a command center to think the miners were alive. The misimpression leaked out to families, compounding the error, Hatfield said in a nationally televised news briefing.

Upon learning that the men had died, the officials hesitated to tell the families until they were certain of the truth, he added.

"We sincerely regret the manner in which the events unfolded early this morning. The occurrences at the Sago Mine over the past couple of days are truly a great tragedy," Hatfield said. "It is unfortunate, and we are saddened by the fact that the communication problems we experienced last night only added to the terrible tragedy."

Scores of relatives in a packed church erupted in rage early Wednesday when they learned that their loved ones were dead. Scuffles broke out between police and some family members. Townspeople wept and screamed at mine company officials and government leaders, calling them liars and hypocrites. Relatives also questioned the actions of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, who had at one point wrongly confirmed that the miners were alive.

Hatfield blamed the cascading errors on garbled communications from the search team and on the exhaustion of officials who were briefly carried away by euphoria.

He also insisted the company had tried to combat early information leaks, and he added that efforts to finally inform the families were delayed by an apparent failure to get word out through police and church officials.

"In the jubilation of the moment, the rules didn't hold," Hatfield said.

Hatfield and other company officials also described efforts by anguished searchers to rush the survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., 27, to safety. A rescue team that heard the miner's moans gave him oxygen, carried him on a stretcher about half a mile, then loaded him onto a tram to transport him about two miles to the mine exit.

McCloy was in critical condition Wednesday night with a collapsed lung and dehydration.

"He's making progress in the right direction," said Dr. Lawrence Roberts, who was treating McCloy at West Virginia University's Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.

McCloy was the youngest of a team of coal-mining veterans that descended into the Sago Mine during a heavy thunderstorm Monday morning. Reports of lightning strikes were numerous, and coal company Chairman Wilbur L. Ross Jr. later insisted in a widely reported interview that a lightning bolt caused the explosion.

Mine safety experts now say lightning was an unlikely culprit. Instead, a buildup of methane gas in an unused section of the mine could have played a critical role, said Kenneth P. Katen, a former deputy assistant secretary of Labor for mine safety during the Reagan administration.

Katen cited several previous instances of methane explosions in mine sections that had been abandoned. Sudden drops in barometric pressure have raised methane levels that are difficult to measure by company inspectors, Katen said. A Sago "fire boss" reportedly checked methane levels before miners entered Monday, but officials have not said whether there were any earlier methane-related problems.

But among 208 safety violations cited at the Sago Mine last year by U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration inspectors were problems with ventilation plans and the placement of methane monitors.

"We're not talking paperwork violations. These were very serious issues that could lead to a disaster," said J. Davitt McAteer, who served as assistant Labor secretary for mine safety during the Clinton administration.

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