Just one survivor at W. Virginia mine
TALLMANSVILLE, West Virginia – Joy gave way to grief and anger on Wednesday when a West Virginia coal town learned that 12 of 13 miners trapped in a mine explosion had died, three hours after friends and family were mistakenly told that all but one had survived.
One man survived after being trapped since Monday’s blast at the Sago mine in central West Virginia and was hospitalized in critical condition. Randal McCloy, 27, was being treated for a kidney dysfunction but was described by doctors as conscious and relatively stable.
The way the tragic news of the deaths of the dozen miners was conveyed angered many family members who had stood vigil at a nearby church.
«I feel that we were lied to all along,» said Anne Meredith, whose father died in the incident, adding that she planned to sue the mine owner, International Coal Group Inc.
News of the 12 deaths came hours after church bells pealed and friends and family of the miners celebrated and sang hymns when word spread that 12 miners had survived. West Virginia’s governor said there were indications within 20 minutes the initial report of a dozen survivors was wrong. Friends and family were not told for about three hours.
«It hit people’s hearts so hard … One guy said what in the hell has God done for us, but just a few minutes before that we was praising God, because they believed that they was alive,» John Casto, a friend of the miners, said on CNN.
Virginia Dean, whose uncle was in the mine, said: «Only one lived. They lied.»
Ben Hatfield, president of ICG, blamed the earlier report on a miscommunication. He said the company had then waited until it could determine which of the miners were dead or alive to tell the families.
The company had called a morning news conference, but it had yet to materialize by mid-afternoon.
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration had confirmed to his office that the miners had been saved.
U.S. President George W. Bush offered his condolences and thanked rescue workers and West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin for their efforts, but he made no mention of the miscommunication.
«Today, our nation mourns those who lost their lives in the mining accident in West Virginia,» he told reporters at the Pentagon.
Several newspapers splashed headlines such as «Miracle in the Mine» on their front pages, which went to press before the truth emerged. «Alive! Miners beat odds» was USA Today’s headline with a picture of two smiling family members.
Rescue workers on Tuesday night had located the 12, trapped about 13,000 feet inside the mine since 6:30 a.m. (1130 GMT) on Monday.
The sole survivor, McCloy, was taken to a nearby hospital in critical condition. He was stabilized with a breathing tube and sent to a bigger hospital.
Doctor Lawrence Roberts at West Virginia University Hospital told a news conference McCloy’s collapsed lung had re-expanded and that he had communicated with his wife through facial expressions and squeezing hands.
«I think youth always helps,» he said, commenting on possible reasons why McCloy alone survived.
Roberts said laying down for a long period and suffering from dehydration had affected his kidneys and that he would be treated for what they hoped was a temporary condition.
«The good news is that every other bodily function test that we do is quite stable,» he said.
McCloy’s sister Lila Muncy said her brother, a father of two, had worked for about three years in the mine. «He was always very cautious,» she told CNN. «Every morning he would tell his wife, ‘God bless you,’ before he left to work because he always knew the danger.»
Terry Helms, found dead near the site of the explosion, was the first of the missing miners to be discovered. The later discovery of an empty transport car farther away fueled hopes the 12 other men had escaped to an area free of toxic gases.
The sadness and fury that came after news of the 12 deaths contrasted with earlier jubilation after a man burst into nearby Sago Baptist Church where family members were holding vigil, shouting, «It’s a miracle, it’s a miracle!» and saying the 12 men had been found alive.
Hope for the men had been tempered with caution because early tests found lethal levels of carbon monoxide. Each man carried only about one hour’s worth of clean air, and there had been no communication with them.
Gov. Manchin said it appeared the error stemmed from cell phone conversations being overheard.
Manchin said he was in the church talking to family members when he became aware of rejoicing that 12 had survived. He denied that he or his staff had ever confirmed the report and said he had begun receiving information that it was inaccurate 20 minutes after the announcement.
There was no explanation for the blast in a recently closed section of the mine, which employs about 145 miners.
Since October, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued 50 citations to the Sago mine, some as recently as December 21, including citations for accumulation of combustible materials such as coal dust and loose coal.
The agency said in a statement early on Wednesday it would begin an in-depth investigation, including «how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners’ conditions.»
«We must figure out what went wrong in the Sago Mine itself and where the company must answer for its safety record,» Rockefeller said.
The mine produces about 800,000 tons of coal annually.