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Only 1 survives

TALLMANSVILLE — Only one of the 13 miners trapped inside an Upshur County mine survived, family members said at 3 a.m. Wednesday. Family members had thought for three hours that 12 of the 13 had survived.

International Coal Group Chief Executive Officer Ben Hatfield told the families that only one miner, Randal McCloy, had survived the explosion.

Hatfield told the families gathered at the Sago Baptist Church that “there had been a lack of communication, that what we were told was wrong and that only one survived,’’ said John Groves, whose brother Jerry Groves was one of the trapped miners.

At that point, chaos broke out in the church and a fight started, Groves said.

“The initial report from the rescue team to the command center indicated multiple survivors,’’ Hatfield said during a press briefing.

It appeared that a cell phone conversation between the rescue teams and the company’s office may have been overhead and misunderstood, he said.

Hatfield said the company waited to correct the information until it knew more about the rescue.

Cries of “Twelve alive! Twelve alive!” went up from family members at 10 minutes to midnight Tuesday, as 12 of the 13 miners trapped inside an Upshur County mine for nearly two full days were reported alive.

One family remained subdued; Terry Helms, 48, of Newberg, fire boss at the mine, was believed to be the sole fatality in the mine explosion, friends and family members of Helms said. The body was found before 8 p.m. in a different location from the rest of the miners, but it had not been positively identified as of 1:30 a.m.

The rescue mission had focused the attention of the entire nation on this tiny West Virginia community. The bell of the church, which had served as an impromptu shelter for about 150 family members as their hopes dimmed with each passing hour, tolled joyously at the highly unexpected news.

An explosion in an old, sealed section of the mine trapped the 13 miners underground about 6 a.m. Monday. At first, many clung to the belief that the men might have barricaded themselves after the explosion and found a pocket of air to survive. Those hopes dimmed early Tuesday, when company officials announced they had found toxic levels of carbon monoxide in the area where the miners were expected to be.

Rescuers had also tapped on the steel of the drill and listened in vain for a response.

Finally, they inserted a tiny camera in the hole. The pictures revealed a surprisingly undamaged mine, with no sign of fire, said Ben Hatfield, president of Independent Coal Group, the company that owns the Sago Mine. But the cameras revealed no signs of life.

By 10:40 p.m. Tuesday, Gov. Joe Manchin was acknowledging that hopes were slim.

“The odds are against us because of the air quality,” he said in a news conference from the church.

But he added, “We believe in miracles in West Virginia.”

Suddenly, shortly before midnight, people started rushing out of the church, shouting “Twelve alive!” They flooded toward the front of the mine, but were stopped by State Police and firefighters.

Families smiled and hugged. Mack Davis of Belington, a friend of trapped miner Marshall Winans, said, “Man, it’s a great day.”

Winans’ mother, Helen Winans of Audra, was clamoring for a cell phone to call her family members who weren’t there, to give them the good news. A woman came up and hugged her.

“We did it, Helen!” she said. “Now, when do we get to see them?”

Tom Hunter, Manchin’s press secretary, said it wasn’t clear whether the miners would be well enough physically to go to the church after they came out of the mine. At 12:34 a.m. this morning a convoy of nine ambulances, a Buckhannon police cruiser, two mine rescue vehicles and several firefighters in personal vehicles turned into the road leading up to the mine. Hunter said each miner was being assessed medically as he came out of the mine. One ambulance left the site at 1:10 a.m., reported to be transporting a miner to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Buckhannon.

All along, the miners were believed to be trapped 260 feet underground, and about 12,000 feet past the mine entrance. Hatfield said the rescue teams had reached 11,200 feet by late afternoon. The rescue crews were on foot, because machinery could cause a spark, and possibly another explosion.

Rescuers found one miner’s body where he had been dropped off at his workstation, which was nearer the explosion site than that of the other 12 miners, Gov. Manchin said.

Family members were told around 8 p.m. that one body had been recovered. Red Cross volunteers reported that several family members fainted at that time, and others were crying.

Red Cross volunteer Denny Hodges said Manchin had been visiting with family members inside the church, holding their hands, listening to them, and offering support and words of encouragement.

When rescuers found the body, they also found the car that carried the miners, Manchin said. It was unharmed, and still on the tracks. The miners appeared to have traveled in it for 1,000 to 1,500 feet past the explosion site, then turned into the 2L section of the mine where they were to work. They apparently left the car, together, under their own power.

That gave the miners’ families a glimmer of hope, Manchin said. However, he said at 10:40 p.m. that rescue crews had a lot more ground to cover — and it was still unclear where the other 12 miners were in the mine.

Barbary Chaapel and her husband, Bill, spent all day inside the church or talking with people outside. Jack Weaver, 53, one of miners, is her sister’s ex-husband.

“Everybody around here knows someone who is a coal miner,” she said.

Chaapel praised the local people who had opened their church to family and friends of the trapped miners.

Earlier in the day Tuesday, a mine rescue robot became mired in mud and was unable to proceed very far into the mine. Several miners outside the entrance said the best-case scenario would be if the miners were able to barricade themselves from the foul air with blocks, wood and special material located within the mine.

“Maybe they can find a place,” fellow miner Tim McGee of Belington, who is friends with many of the trapped miners, said at the time. “But three times the carbon monoxide a person can breathe for 15 minutes ...”

McGee worked in a nearby mine Monday night. “Things like this make you leery, sure. Anybody who says they’re not afraid, that’s when somebody gets hurt.”

The crew, which was restarting the mine after a two-day holiday shutdown, had an average of 23 years of underground mining experience, said company vice president Gene Kitts.

“This was not a rookie crew,” Kitts said.

Nick Helms, son of Terry Helms, who was believed killed, arrived at Sago Mine about noon on Tuesday after a long drive from South Carolina.

“I believe they’re all alive,” he said at mid-afternoon. He said he expected his father to walk across the bridge at any minute.

The Associated Press and staff writers Tara Tuckwiller, Scott Finn, Paul Nyden and Ken Ward Jr. contributed to this report.

To contact staff writer Dave Gustafson, use e-mail or call 348-5113.


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