Joy, despair, rage


A candlelight memorial service for the 12 miners who died in a mine explosion at the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, W.Va., is held at the Sago Baptist Church Wednesday evening Jan. 4, 2006.

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar
Published: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 5, 2006 at 12:00 a.m.
SAGO, W.Va. - As this tiny town struggled to contain its anguish and anger over the deaths of 12 men in a coal mine explosion, the mine's owners came under fierce criticism on Wednesday for the miscommunications that caused the miners' families to believe that their loved ones had survived the ordeal.
"It's like walking through a mortuary, the sadness is that deep," said Clifford Rice, a Sago resident.
Trying to explain the false report, Ben Hatfield, the president of International Coal Group, the mining company, on Wednesday released a detailed chronology indicating that low-tech communications equipment, overwhelmed rescue teams and a hunger for good news among the rescue coordinators combined to cause the mistake.
The explosion early Monday trapped the 13 miners more than two miles inside the mountainside, releasing toxic carbon monoxide that prevented rescuers from reaching them for more than 40 hours. One miner survived. The bodies of the other 12 men were taken to the Upshur County Medical Examiner's office Wednesday morning for autopsies.
The survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., 27, was in critical condition at Ruby Memorial Hospital at West Virginia University in Morgantown, where he was being treated for kidney problems caused by dehydration and a collapsed lung.
State and federal mining experts opened their investigation of the explosion, whose cause is unknown, on Wednesday afternoon, as Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao pledged "to take the necessary steps to ensure that this never happens again."
Congressional Democrats also called for hearings into the mine company's safety record and the Bush administration's policies on mine safety, citing a long list of violations at the Sago mine.
Little new information emerged Wednesday about the cause of the powerful explosion and the miners' deaths. But a mine safety expert for the United Mine Workers of America who assisted in the rescue effort said it appeared that 11 of the miners might have died of carbon monoxide poisoning because their bodies were found behind a makeshift barricade in a state of repose.
"It was as if they were sleeping," said the expert, Dennis O'Dell, administrator of health and safety for the union. Carbon monoxide, which in high levels can asphyxiate a person within minutes, is a byproduct of explosions.
On Wednesday evening about 125 mourners held a candlelight vigil at the little white church where so much had transpired. "The Holy Spirit has hung so heavily over this area the past few days," the pastor, Wease Day, said. "We know there's a special brotherhood among coal miners."None of the participants in the vigil expressed bitterness or anger toward the mine company. A few said they did not know why or how the accident happened but were confident they would find out.
On Tuesday afternoon, barely 24 hours earlier, hopes for the men were fading after a rescue team found the body of one miner and air tests showed high levels of carbon monoxide. Soon afterward word spread on Tuesday night among families gathered at a nearby Baptist church that the 12 had been found alive.
Then just three hours later, in a tense meeting inside the church, the company's president told the families that the good news, which had been confirmed by some state and federal officials, was wrong. The church erupted in shouts of "liar," and some people lunged toward Hatfield, causing him to flee the building, witnesses said.
Many residents and miners' families said Wednesday that the company should have told them sooner about the deaths. In the hours between the first report that the men had survived and Hatfield's visit to the church, a celebration had begun as people began preparing food for the miners.
"People who had been rejoicing just lost it," said Lynette Roby, a town resident who brought her three children to the church to join the festivities. "Someone should have said, 'Stop the celebration.' "
In a news conference on Wednesday, Hatfield said that a rescue party reached the trapped miners at 11:45 on Tuesday night. While wearing an oxygen mask, one of the rescuers radioed to a "clean air" station closer to the mine entrance that they had found the men.
It is not clear precisely what the rescuer said in that communication, Hatfield said. But the message that was conveyed from the clean air station to a rescue command center via a hardwire telephone system was "12 men alive," Hatfield said.
The call, which came into the command post across a speaker box which everyone in the room could hear, set off a burst of joyful cries so loud that the room had to be cleared. Company officials said they told the rescue team that no one should communicate information about the discovery until it was confirmed. But word somehow reached the people inside the church, Hatfield said.
Within minutes, the church bell began ringing, and town members flocked to the church to join the celebration. Gov. Joe Manchin, who was in the church, was swept up in the wave of euphoria.
"I wanted to believe," Manchin said in a news conference Wednesday morning. He left the church to go to the command post to confirm the news. As he was leaving the church, someone asked him whether the report was true. He replied, "Miracles do happen."
That comment was taken by some residents and reporters as confirmation that the miners had survived. But Manchin said he had not meant to give that impression.
At the command post, Hatfield said the rescue managers were trying to organize ambulances, medical care, stretchers and water for what they believed were 12 survivors. But at about 12:30 a.m., the rescue team called to say that they were bringing out the sole survivor.
Dumbstruck, Hatfield said many people in the command post at first refused to believe it.
He said he thought it possible that the rescue teams were mistaken and that some of the miners might be alive in carbon monoxide induced comas.
Hatfield said they decided to delay an announcement about the situation until additional rescuers were able to examine the 11 bodies.
The final report returned around 2:30 a.m. Hatfield said he composed a statement, then headed to the church.
Asked Wednesday whether he should have told the families earlier that the initial report was wrong, Hatfield said he decided to wait until complete information was available to avoid having some people remain uncertain about their relatives' fates.
"Who do I tell not to celebrate?" he said. "We did not want to put the families through yet another roller coaster of, 'Well some of them are dead, some of them aren't.' We couldn't go there. There's been too much emotional punishment already."
But later in the day, Hatfield said that, in hindsight, he perhaps should have gone to the church earlier to put a damper on the euphoria.
He also said that the state police had been told to ask ministers at the church to warn that "the first report might have been too optimistic." But he said it was not clear whether that caution was issued.
O'Dell said the miners barricaded themselves in an alcove not far from the wall they were preparing to mine when the explosion occurred. But he said that the cloth was not stretched tight enough to keep out the poisonous air.

List of miners who were trapped in W.Va. coal mine The Associated Press

List of miners A listing of the 13 West Virginia coal miners who were trapped underground Monday in an explosion, according to interviews with family members and friends, and a release from the state medical examiner's office:
  • Thomas P. Anderson, 39, residence unavailable
  • Alva Martin "Marty" Bennett, 51, of Buckhannon
  • Jim Bennett, 61, of Philippi
  • Jerry Groves, 56, of Cleveland, W.Va.
  • George Hamner Jr., 54, of Gladyfork
  • Terry Helms, 50, of Newburg
  • Jesse L. Jones, 44, of Pickens
  • David Lewis, 28, of Philippi
  • Randal McCloy Jr., 26, of Simpson
  • Martin Toler, 51, of Flatwoods
  • Fred Ware Jr., 59, of Tallmansville
  • Jack Weaver, 52, of Philippi
  • Marshall Winans, 50, of Talbott
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