BUCKHANNON, W.Va. — "Did our dad have to die?" Peggy Cohen wanted to know Tuesday as mine safety regulators opened an emotional public hearing on questions surrounding the January disaster that left 12 men dying deep inside the Sago Mine.
Relatives of the other miners followed her to the microphone, some clutching framed photos of the victims.
"We assure you, Mr. Politicians, that we're not going to let this rest," said John Groves, whose brother Jerry Groves was among the victims. "We know in our hearts that this can be corrected. It needs to be done immediately; it needs to be done now. And it's on you.
"If another accident happens without safety changes, you are responsible."
Four months after the blast, officials from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration; West Virginia's Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training; and International Coal Group Inc., which owns the Sago Mine, began testifying about the disaster in a two-day public hearing.
The miners' families wanted to know whether lightning caused the mine blast that killed one of the crew. They wanted to know why it took the federal agency 11 hours to start the search for the trapped crew, and how the false news spread that 12 of the 13 trapped men were alive when all the men but one, Randal McCloy Jr., were dead.
McCloy wasn't expected to testify at the hearing, but in a letter to the other miners' families, he wrote that at least four of the air packs assigned to his crew failed to function, forcing the men to share a limited oxygen supply.
Tuesday's testimony centered on the mine's safety record in the year before the explosion and whether state and federal officials had appropriately enforced regulations.
One overriding question from the miners' relatives: Was the explosion preventable?
The blast occurred as crews prepared to resume production after the New Year's holiday. Two miners entered the mine ahead of the crews to check for problems.
One of them, fire boss Terry Helms, is believed to have died in the explosion. The second escaped, but told federal and state investigators his inspection report was lost.
That doesn't sit well with Debbie Hamner, widow of George Hamner and the families' representative on the hearing panel. She said another miner recalls Helms reporting "two small violations, but he can't remember what they were."
"My husband's dead, so there's no small violations to me," Hamner said.
J. Davitt McAteer, a former mine safety director, is leading the hearing and the state investigation. Gov. Joe Manchin has asked him for a report by July 1, along with recommendations on how to make coal mines safer.