Triumph Turns to Tragedy at Sago Mine

The search for 13 West Virginia coal miners who had been trapped underground since about 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 2 came to a grim conclusion early this morning when 12 of the miners were found dead.

One miner, Randy McCloy Jr., was found alive and reportedly is in critical condition in a Morgantown hospital with a collapsed lung and other injuries.

McCloy was the sole survivor of an explosion that trapped the 13 miners several hundred feet underground and triggered a massive search-and-rescue effort involving federal, state and local officials a rescue effort that sent the miners' family and friends on an excruciating roller coaster ride.

Shortly before midnight last night, church bells in Tallmansville, W.Va., rang out and family and friends were jubilant as word surfaced that 12 of the 13 missing miners had been found alive. Nearly 3 hours later, the miners' loved ones' euphoria turned to outrage when they reportedly were told that all but one of the miners was dead.

An obviously distraught Ben Hatfield, president and CEO of International Coal Group Inc., which has owned the Sago Mine in Upshur County, West Virginia, since November, told reporters early this morning he was devastated by the week's events, adding, "Welcome to the worst day of my life." He blamed the mistaken reports that 12 miners had survived on miscommunication between rescuers and the command center.

Hatfield also told reporters that he knew within 20 minutes of the earlier reports of 12 survivors that they were erroneous. However, Hatfield said he waited several hours to update miners' loved ones because, at the time, he did not know exactly how many miners had perished.

The miners, who were found 13,000 feet into the mine, apparently survived the initial explosion, and were able to build a temporary barricade where they were waiting for rescue when death overtook them. They were found wearing self-contained breathing apparatuses, which International CEO Hatfield said held 1 hour of oxygen.

MSHA Promises Investigation

In the wake of the tragic conclusion to the mine explosion the cause of which still is unknown Mine Safety and Health Adminstration (MSHA) Acting Assistant Secretary David Dye promised an in-depth investigation.

"This starts with the appointment of a separate MSHA investigative team that will evaluate all aspects of the accident and response, including compliance with all federal health and safety standards, and how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners' conditions," Dye said. "As always, the purpose of MSHA's investigation will be to improve mine health and safety and prevent such tragedies in the future."

This is the deadliest mine disaster in West Virginia since a November 1968 explosion at Consol's Farmington No. 9 Mine in Marion County took the lives of 78 men including the uncle of West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and prompted Congress to pass the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

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