First Joyful News, Then a Tragedy About Miners

Times Staff Writers

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.

Company officials had initially blamed the blast on a lightning strike during a heavy thunderstorm Monday morning. But Hatfield acknowledged that the force of the blast had come from a sector that "should normally have been inert and protected from an explosion. Somehow a fuel source and an emission came together."

He had no further explanation about what the source of the explosion could have been. Hatfield said he was certain only "that we are not dealing with a roof cave-in or a collapse."

Manchin said officials believed "there had to be methane gas or a buildup of fuel back there. There was equipment, no machinery, nothing back there that could have made this happen."

About 11,200 feet from the mine entrance, rescuers found the dead miner in a sector where coal ore was dumped on a belt line to be transferred out of the shaft. Hatfield speculated that the man worked on the belt line, but he cautioned that it was not certain. Manchin said the miner had been dropped off by the tram at that location -- a clear sign that was his work station.

"Unfortunately we've not been able to confirm the deceased miner's identity," Hatfield said. He added that officials planned to bring the body out "as quickly as possible."

About 700 feet away, searchers found the abandoned tram that had transported the other missing miners.

The miners should have tried to make their way toward the shaft exit, Hatfield said. But he speculated that someone may have been confused and gone into the old work zone, an abandoned area.

The miners normally move in and out on a track-operated tram. But after the explosion, rescue teams proceeded cautiously, stopping to brace roof supports and right toppled partitions used to help ventilate the far reaches of the mine shaft.

The rescue teams had closed in after officials had shut down operations to drill from above to test air quality and communicate with the missing men. A video camera was lowered through one 260-foot-deep boring but found nothing during a methodical scan.

Air pockets sampled by sensors lowered through a hole drilled by rescue crews found lethal levels of carbon monoxide. The toxic gas was released by the force of the explosion and also might have built up as the ventilation system failed at the far end of the shaft.

Miners would not be expected to live more than 15 minutes without air tanks. Trying to rouse the missing men, rescue workers also banged on the heavy metal drill bit after it penetrated to the bottom of the 260-foot boring. But they heard no reply taps, officials said.

"We pounded on the drill steel and received no response," Hatfield said.

Many of the miners' relatives praised ICG's efforts to find the missing men and vouched for the firm's safety programs.

But other Upshur County residents who worked in the mine in the recent past said that they had worried about the Sago Mine's safety record.

Raymond Groves, a former miner whose brother, Jerry, was among the trapped workers, said that he left after a brief period working at Sago because of the mine's poor work conditions. "None of us liked the way it looked," Groves said. He said he had been concerned about the mine's excessively muddy flooring and had trouble at times staying on his feet.

ICG finalized its purchase of the Sago Mine last fall, buying the operations from the Anker West Virginia Mining Co., which had gone bankrupt. Anker had owned the mine since April 2001, acquiring it from a local contract miner.

The contract miner had in turn bought the mine two years earlier from Anker.

The mine's federal health and safety violations had nearly doubled over the last year, rising from 68 citations in 2004 to 181 in 2005. Nearly half of the 2005 totals were deemed "significant and substantial," the government's term for serious mine safety problems. The deficiencies included problems with the firm's ventilation and roof support plans.

At least 46 federal violations had been cited since October. And records from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration indicated that at least a dozen roof collapses occurred in the last six months.

In addition, Terry Farley, a West Virginia mine safety official, confirmed that the Sago Mine was also cited by state regulators for 208 violations in 2005, up from 74 the year before.

Mine safety experts said that the sudden rise in safety problems should have alarmed ICG when it was preparing to buy the mine.

"That's a significant number for a mine that size," said Kenneth P. Katen, a former deputy assistant Labor secretary for the mine agency under the Reagan administration. "If you have a sudden increase of violations, that's something that should have drawn the new owners' attention."

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Peterson reported from Tallmansville and Braun from Washington.

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