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MSHA Launches Probe into Sago Mine Explosion

MSHA has begun its investigation of the West Virginia coal mine explosion that killed 12 miners and seriously injured another.

The explosion, which occurred Jan. 2 at the Sago Mine in Upshur County, W. Va., trapped the 13 miners underground and triggered a massive search-and-rescue effort by federal, state and local officials. It also left many unanswered questions, such as what sparked the blast and what caused the breakdown in communication that left miners' relatives believing for several hours that their loved ones were alive.

"The purpose of MSHA's investigation is to determine what caused the explosion and whether any safety and health standards were violated," said David Dye, acting assistant secretary for mine safety and health. "Then we can take effective action to prevent such tragedies in the future."

An independent, eight-member team of MSHA mine safety professionals will evaluate all aspects of the accident and response, including potential causes, compliance with federal health and safety standards and how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners' condition, the agency says.

The team will examine the accident site, interview mine personnel and others with relevant information, review records and plans and inspect any mining equipment that was involved in the accident, according to MSHA.

Findings and conclusions will be summarized in a formal report that will identify root causes of the accident and document how the incident unfolded. Any contributing violations of federal mine safety standards that may exist also will be cited at the conclusion of the investigation.

MSHA District Manager to Head Team

The investigative team is made up of federal mine safety professionals and experts from around the country.

Richard Gates, MSHA district manager in Birmingham, Ala., is heading the team. Gates has held a number of positions in his 18-year career with the agency, including ventilation specialist, mining engineer and assistant district manager. Assisting Gates will be:

  • John Urosek and Richard Stoltz, ventilation experts in Pittsburgh;
  • Dennis Swentosky, ventilation supervisor in Hunker, Pa.;
  • Robert Bates, electrical supervisor in Pikeville, Ky.;
  • Joseph O'Donnell, field office supervisor in Bessemer, Ala.;
  • Clete Stephan, an engineer in Pittsburgh; and
  • Gary Harris, a special investigator in Barbourville, Ky.

James Crawford, Tim Williams and Bob Wilson, attorneys with the Department of Labor's Solicitor's Office in Arlington, Va., will assist the investigation team.

Throughout this process, MSHA says it will work closely with the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training to gather the facts. Since the initial hours of the incident, MSHA personnel have maintained a constant presence at the disaster site, accompanying mine rescue teams underground, providing technical assistance and monitoring ongoing conditions at the site.

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