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Final Sago Mine disaster lawsuits settled

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Nearly six years after the Sago Mine disaster, the remaining wrongful-death lawsuits filed by families of the miners who died have been resolved, according to court records filed Friday.

Lawyers for families of six of the miners filed papers indicating they had reached settlements with mine operator Wolf Run Mining Co., and resolved claims against parent company International Coal Group and other defendants.

Terms were not disclosed, but Kanawha Circuit Judge Charles King scheduled a hearing for Nov. 16 to consider approval of the settlements, court officials said. Trial had been scheduled to start in May.

"Right now, the families are focused on completing the steps necessary for the conclusion of the settlements," said Morgantown lawyer Al Karlin, who represented several of the families.

Families of five of the miners killed at Sago had already settled wrongful-death cases against the company, and survivor Randal McCloy Jr. settled a lawsuit filed over injuries he sustained in the disaster.

Technically, the wrongful-death cases involve settlements between the mining company and the estates of the miners who died. The new settlements also resolve two other lawsuits filed against the mining company by family members other than those administering the estates.

A spokeswoman for Arch Coal, which earlier this year bought ICG, did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

The new settlements were reached by the families of miners Tom Anderson, Jerry Groves, George Hamner, Jerry Jones, Jackie Weaver and Marshall Winans. Previous wrongful-death settlements were reached by the families of miners James Bennett, Marty Bennett, Terry Helms, David Lewis and Fred Ware. The family of one miner who died, Martin Toler, did not sue.

At about 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 2, 2006, an explosion ripped through the Sago Mine south of Buckhannon. One miner, fireboss Terry Helms, died soon after the blast from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Surrounded by smoke and toxic fumes, 12 other miners took shelter behind a makeshift barricade. Eleven of them died before rescuers reached them more than 40 hours later. Only McCloy survived. Before the deaths last year of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, Sago was the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.

Federal investigators pointed to a lightning strike as the "most likely" ignition source for the blast, which occurred inside a sealed area of the Sago Mine.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded that stronger seals, proper methane monitoring and the removal of a pump cable from the sealed area where the explosion occurred could have prevented the disaster. MSHA did not cite ICG or its subsidiary, Wolf Run, with any violations contributing to the accident.

Lawsuits filed by the families had cited a long string of safety violations prior to the disaster, the lack of required anti-lightning equipment, lax methane monitoring and poor construction of the mine seals.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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