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West Virginia Mine Tragedy

Cruel Hope Began With a Garbled Message: '12 Alive'

January 05, 2006|Jonathan Peterson and Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writers

SAGO, W.Va. — They found the trapped miners 41 hours after the explosion. Two and a half miles into the mountain, 12 men were clustered behind a makeshift shelter, and one of them was moaning.

The rescue crew swarmed him. In the dim light and slowed by their protective gear, they scrambled to assess the man's injuries, administer oxygen and find the best way to carry him through debris-clogged tunnels.

In the feverish rush, one or more rescuers spoke into the radio transmitters inside their oxygen masks. They needed to get word to a base camp nearer the mouth of the mine: They had found all 12 men. One was alive.

At 11:45 p.m., the base camp staff heard the transmission and passed it on to rescue teams at the surface.

But somewhere along the way, the message got garbled. No one realized the confusion. So began an ordeal of misplaced jubilation and crashing grief that buffeted exhausted relatives and friends who had been waiting nearly two days inside a church atop a muddy hill.

The garbled message just before midnight touched off a riotous celebration. Jubilant relatives broke into song; one pastor had the joy of telling a little boy that his dad would soon come home. Newspapers went to press with such headlines as: "They're Alive!" and "Miracles Happen." Television cameras beamed the joy around the world.

For three hours, the celebration continued.

Then came word: It was all a mistake.

The heartbreak began Tuesday evening, when rescuers discovered one body near a coal conveyor belt. The news upset the families huddled inside Sago Baptist Church, but still, things didn't look hopeless. The 12 remaining miners were veterans of the underground. The families hugged and prayed. They sang hymns. They waited.

A short drive away, at the rescue command center set up in the mine office, government officials, relatives of several missing miners and executives of the International Coal Group, which bought the Sago Mine in November, were also waiting for news.

It came at 11:45 p.m.: Base camp was on the line, on speakerphone -- and the news was better than anyone had dared to hope. Not one miracle, but a dozen:

"It came across," said Gene Kitts, senior vice president of ICG, "as 12 alive."

Mine officials had warned everyone in the command center to keep any news bulletins to themselves until they could be confirmed. But this was incredible news. Such an uproar swept the office that the command staff couldn't hear further reports from base camp. They ordered all nonessential personnel to leave.

The joyous crowd spilled into the parking lot, and disregarding their earlier instructions, began dialing their cellphones.

Gov. Joe Manchin arrived and wrapped ICG President and Chief Executive Ben Hatfield in a bear hug. "We thought we had a celebration that would never end," Hatfield said.

Family members who had been in the mine office when the news came raced through a pelting rain up the sodden hill to the church, whooping: "They're alive! They're alive!" The church bells pealed. A dozen ambulances headed to the mine's entrance.

In the little town of Century, Becky Marsh saw the news flash across her TV and ran to wake up her teenage children. "Guys! Guys! They found them alive!" she yelled. Her husband works at the mine, loading trucks on the surface, and knew many of the missing.

"We began to celebrate like it was New Year's all over again," Marsh said.

Lynette Roby, a friend to several miners, took her family up to the church to join the jubilation. She wanted her children, she said, to share in the miracle.

As euphoria took hold in Upshur County, officials at the rescue command center were getting disturbing news.

A transmission from base camp at 12:18 a.m. indicated that the rescuers were on their way with survivors. But 12 minutes later, base camp called again: The rescue crew had arrived -- with just one survivor, a young man in critical condition. The other 11 were still deep within the mine, apparently dead.

"The immediate reaction in the command center was that this report of only one survivor may be erroneous," Hatfield said. He and others clung "to the fervent hope," he said, that the other men might be comatose.

The celebration in the church continued. A rumor swept through: The miners were not only on their way to the surface, but they were coming to the church to reunite with their families. People scurried about fixing them meals from the donated food.

At 1:20 a.m., the rescue team with the survivor reached the surface; he was taken to a hospital. At 1:38 a.m., Hatfield sent more rescuers, along with paramedics, back into the mine to check on the other 11 men. He did not tell crowds in the church to temper their celebration.

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