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MSHA told Byrd, Rockefeller that miners were alive

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration staff erroneously confirmed to Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., that 12 miners were found alive deep inside the Sago Mine in Upshur County, Byrd’s office said Thursday.

MSHA staff provided the erroneous report early Wednesday morning, but never completely corrected the information when it became clear that all but one of the workers had died.

Tom Gavin, Byrd’s press secretary, said the initial MSHA report was made by phone sometime between 12:15 and 12:30 a.m. Wednesday.

Gavin said an MSHA staffer called Byrd’s staff to alert the senator to media reports saying that the miners had been found alive.

The MSHA staffer added that the information “had been confirmed by MSHA staff at the site,” Gavin said.

Nearly two hours later, at about 2:30 a.m., the MSHA staffer called again to inform Byrd of “conflicting reports about the health of the miners,” Gavin said.

Once it became clear the 12 miners had been found dead, MSHA never called Byrd’s office back to break that news.

Rockefeller’s office reported a similar chain of events, concluding with no follow-up communication that the miners had died.

“MSHA confirmed to my office that the miners had been saved,” Rockefeller said Wednesday in a prepared statement.

The miscommunication about 12 of the 13 miners trapped by the Monday morning explosion at the Sago Mine south of Buckhannon left families of the miners wrongly believing for three hours that their loved ones had been found and were alive.

Earlier in the evening, rescue crews had found the body of one of the 13 workers.

The first call to Byrd’s office came after the mine rescue command center at 11:45 p.m. Tuesday received what turned out to be an incorrect or misunderstood report that the other 12 had been found alive.

Ben Hatfield, president of mine owner International Coal Group, said Wednesday that officials at the command center — including MSHA, the state regulator and the company — were told 40 minutes after the first erroneous message that the miners were probably dead.

Families were not told about the deaths, though, until sometime between 2:30 a.m. and 3 a.m. Wednesday.

In a statement later Wednesday, United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said “This terrible event was made worse for the families by the inexplicable confusion regarding initial reports that 12 of the miners had been found alive.

“That the families were allowed to believe for three hours that their loved ones were alive — when in fact only Mr. [Randal] McCloy was — is inexcusable,” Roberts said. “The UMWA strongly encourages the appropriate state and federal officials to investigate how this could have happened, so that no family member will ever have to suffer like this again.”

MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot did not return phone calls Thursday.

In a news release, MSHA said its investigation of the Sago disaster would evaluate, among other things, “how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners’ condition.”

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702. To contact staff writer Paul J. Nyden, use-email or call 348-5164


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