Doomed Miners Fought to Live

Times Staff Writers

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.

In 2004, Sago had 74 violations. Federal investigators "will look at the rise in violations, I'm sure," Katen said.

Hatfield insisted Wednesday that ICG, which bought Sago in November, bore no responsibility for the violations. "I can make no apologies for what happened before I got here," he said.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers called for congressional hearings into mine safety. Several House members cited the Sago Mine's record of safety violations.

The dozen miners trapped by the explosion were in the lead car of a tram that had gone near the end of the 2-mile shaft Monday morning. According to Hatfield, the men passed a "fire boss" who was working near a belt line where coal is dumped onto a conveyor mechanism. About 6:30 a.m., an explosion blew out the cinderblock seals near the belt line. The fire boss died at the spot, officials said. About 700 yards away, the rest of the miners apparently left the undamaged tram on their own, company officials said.

"They felt the percussion and heard the noise, perhaps," Hatfield said. "They started toward the outside."

Behind the trapped miners, a second group barely escaped. Arnett Roger Perry, 53, a 30-year mining veteran, was in another tram near the end of the mineshaft when shock waves caromed through the mine. Perry's son, Arnett Roger Perry II, said debris flew through the air and a hot wind blew "so hard it knocked out their lights and knocked their hats off."

"My dad started screaming. He thought they were being buried alive."

The elder Perry and four companions stumbled through the dark toward the exit.

A rescue team from outside rushed them onto another tram and whisked them to safety. Several of the escaped miners tried to reenter the mine, but they had no respirators and had to flee as carbon monoxide levels rose.

Far behind them, the trapped miners also would have tried to leave the mine. But Hatfield said the men "probably encountered heavy smoke, very dense smoke."

"And, of course, the ventilation system was disrupted by the explosion. So they concluded they had no safe means of exiting the mine."

They retreated to a maze-like section known as "Second Left," a dim catacomb of coal seams slanting off to an angle from the main shaft. They then did "what skilled miners do," Hatfield said. "You retreat to a safe breathing environment and try to construct a barricade and hold out for help."

As carbon monoxide levels quickly rose, fed by the combustion, the miners grabbed a sheet of fibrous plastic stored in the shaft that is used to channel air into the mine.

The miners apparently propped the "brattice cloth," as it is known, between the coal face and two side walls. Each miner also carried a small respirator, and all were found wearing the masks, Hatfield said. The respirators normally provide about an hour of oxygen during exertion, but the duration can be extended if the men lie down and conserve inhalations.

Once they hunkered down in the dark, there was nothing to do but wait.

Peterson reported from Sago and Braun from Washington. Times staff writers Stephanie Simon in Denver and Richard Simon in Washington also contributed to this report.

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BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX

Miners took refuge deep inside shaft

The West Virginia coal miners who survived Monday's explosion inside the Sago Mine retreated into the shaft and hung a plastic curtain to keep out toxic gases while awaiting rescue.

Monday morning: Explosion occurs at 6:30.

Monday: Miners attempting to rescue their co-workers turned back by carbon monoxide.

Tuesday: Microphones and cameras lowered into drilled air shafts.

Tuesday evening: Rescuers find body of mine fire boss Terry Helms.

Tuesday night: Rescuers find 11 dead miners and one survivor behind ventilation curtain, but number of survivors is miscommunicated.

Sources: Thom Marsh, The Herald-Dispatch (West Virginia); Chicago Tribune; International Coal Group; Associated Press.

Graphics reporting by Brady MacDonald

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