Thursday, January 05, 2006

Officials Piece Together Coal Mine Tragedy [BlackDiamond]

TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. - Most of the 13 coal miners trapped in an explosion survived the blast itself, retreated deeper into the mine and hung up a curtain-like barrier to keep out toxic gases while they waited to be rescued, officials said Wednesday. All but one were found dead after more than a day and a half.

The miners' families learned of the 12 deaths after a harrowing night in which they were mistakenly told at first that 12 of the men were alive. It took three hours before the families were told the truth, and their joy turned instantly to fury.

The sole survivor, Randal McCloy, was in critical condition with a collapsed lung and dehydration but no sign of brain damage or carbon monoxide poisoning after being trapped for more than 42 hours, a doctor said. At 27, McCloy was one of the youngest in the group.

The last of the 12 bodies were taken out of the mine at midmorning.

One of the dead was found at least 700 feet from where the others had barricaded themselves in the maze-like mine, officials said. Ben Hatfield, chief executive of mine owner International Coal Group, said the miner was apparently killed by the force of the blast.

The cause of death for the other men was not immediately disclosed. But McCoy and the 11 others did as they were trained to do, and huddled behind a fabric barrier they had set up to keep out carbon monoxide gas, which had been detected in deadly concentrations inside the mine, Hatfield and state officials said.

The fabric — designed specifically for use as a gas barrier in an accident — was stretched across an area about 20 feet wide, Hatfield said.

Also, each of the miners in the barricaded area had a breathing apparatus that purifies the air and had been able to use it, according to mine officials.

How long they survived was not immediately disclosed. But on Tuesday morning, rescuers drilled a narrow hole near the spot and got no response when they banged on a steel pipe and listened for an answer.

It was the nation's deadliest coal mining disaster in more than four years.

The devastating information about the dead shocked and angered family members, who had rejoiced with Gov. Joe Manchin hours earlier when word spread that 12 miners were alive. Bystanders applauded as they saw McCloy brought from the mine early Wednesday, not realizing he would be the only one to make it out alive.

"I can only say there was no one who did anything intentionally other than risk their lives to save their loved ones," Manchin told ABC's "Good Morning America."

"No one can say anything about that would make anything any better," he said. "Just a horrible situation."

McCloy was reported to be unconscious but moaning when he arrived at the hospital. He was in the intensive care unit at West Virginia University's Ruby Memory Hospital at Morgantown. Doctors said he was under sedation and on a ventilator to help with his breathing.

"He responds to stimuli and that's good," Dr. Lawrence Roberts said. Most of the other miners were in their 50s, and doctors said McCloy's youth may have helped him survive.

Charles Green, McCloy's father-in-law, told ABC that when he found out his son-in law was the only survivor, "I was still devastated. My whole family's heart goes out to them other families."

President Bush said the entire nation mourns the loss, and he saluted the rescuers "who risked their lives to save those miners for showing such courage."

The miners had been trapped 260 feet down since Monday morning in the Sago Mine, which is shaped like a large backward "F" and situated about 100 miles northeast of Charleston. As rescue workers tried to reach the men, families waited at the Sago Baptist Church during a grueling vigil.

The cause of the blast remained under investigation. But coal mine explosions are typically caused by buildups of naturally occurring methane gas or highly combustible coal dust in the air.

But late Tuesday night, families began streaming out of the church, yelling "They're alive!" The church bells began ringing and families embraced, as politicians proclaimed word of the apparent rescue a miracle. The governor was among those who announced there were 12 survivors.

Hatfield blamed the wrong information on a "miscommunication." The news spread after people overheard cell phone calls, he said. In reality, rescuers had only confirmed finding 12 miners and were checking their vital signs. At least two family members in the church said they received cell phone calls from a mine foreman.

"That information spread like wildfire, because it had come from the command center," he said.

Hatfield said it became clear within 20 minutes that the news was terribly wrong. But he said families were not told of the mistake until three hours later because officials wanted to have all the information right first.

"Let's put this in perspective. Who do I tell not to celebrate? I didn't know if there were 12 or one" alive, the executive said.

When the bad news was delivered to the families, "there was no apology. There was no nothing. It was immediately out the door," said Nick Helms, son of miner Terry Helms, one of the dead.

Chaos broke out in the church and a fight started. About a dozen state troopers and a SWAT team were positioned along the road near the church because police were concerned about violence. Witnesses said one man had to be wrestled to the ground when he lunged for mining officials.

A hole drilled into the mine nearby earlier during the ordeal found deadly levels of carbon monoxide, a byproduct of combustion. The odorless, colorless gas can be lethal at high doses. At lower levels, it can cause headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea, fatigue and brain damage.

The explosion was West Virginia's deadliest coal mining accident since 1968, when 78 men — including Manchin's uncle — died in an explosion at a mine in Marion County, an hour's drive from here. Nineteen bodies remain entombed in the mountain. It was that disaster that prompted Congress to pass the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

It was the nation's worst coal mining disaster since a pair of explosions tore through a mine in Brookwood, Ala., on Sept. 23, 2001, killing 13.

Federal Labor Department officials promised an investigation. Acting Assistant Secretary David Dye, who heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said it will include "how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners' conditions."

Manchin, who had earlier said that the state believed in miracles, tried to focus on the news that one had survived.

"We're clinging to one miracle when we were hoping for 13," he said.

1 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

So now we know why it took so long to notify the families about the dead miners. It took that long to bring in a SWAT team to protect the mine officials. Bastards

 8:27 PM  

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