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Victim’s letter charted hours as hope faded

PHILIPPI — In the darkness of the Sago Mine, one of 12 trapped coal miners scrawled a timeline detailing how he was alive but losing air at least 10 hours after an underground explosion, his daughter said Saturday.

“Each time he documented, you could tell it was getting worse,” Ann Merideth said of the note written by her father, 61-year-old shuttle car operator Jim Bennett. “Later on down the note, he said that it was getting dark. It was getting smoky. They were losing air.”

If he was lucid enough to be writing 10 hours after the blast, he could have been saved — but the rescue operation didn’t move fast enough, Merideth said Saturday.

The first rescuers didn’t go into the mine until 11 hours after the blast, a lag officials said was necessary to clear the mine of high concentrations of poisonous gases. When the miners were brought out more than 40 hours after the blast, there was only one survivor.

“I’m not sure how many miners went and was able to live as long as my father had, which I’m sure most of them did, and it really bothers me, because it took them so long,” Merideth said.

Monday’s explosion killed one miner immediately. Eleven others were found huddled 2 miles inside the mine behind a plastic curtain they had erected to keep out deadly carbon monoxide.

The lone survivor, 26-year-old Randal McCloy Jr., remained critically ill Saturday with possible brain damage from oxygen deprivation and carbon monoxide poisoning. However, doctors at a Pittsburgh hospital said he was showing dramatic signs of recovery, including flickering his eyes. They planned to transfer McCloy back to West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital some time Saturday night.

International Coal Group Inc. chief executive Ben Hatfield, whose company operates the mine, said Saturday that the rescuers had to follow state and federal laws that require a methodical approach to avoid rescuers getting trapped, injured or killed.

“It is painful, and it’s slow, and it was maddening, as we were all just doing our level best as we were attempting to get there,” Hatfield said. “And we’re going to do our best to make sure that families understand.”

Bob Friend, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s acting deputy assistant secretary of labor, echoed his words, saying a primary concern in such a rescue operation is the safety of the rescue teams.

Merideth said her father’s note, given to the family Friday by the medical examiner, has three or four entries, the first at 11:40 a.m. Monday, about five hours after the blast, and the final entry, with words getting fainter and trailing off the page, at 4:25 p.m., nearly 10 hours after the blast.

She said she had suspected that there would have been a last note from her father, a deeply religious man who prayed for his fellow miners every day and planned to retire this year.

“Well, we got one yesterday. Bless his heart,” Merideth said. She shared the details but did not provide a copy to the AP.

“He didn’t know how much more time he had. But he wanted everybody to know to tell my mom that he loved her,” she said. “And he wanted me and my brother to know that he loved us.”

Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA official who has worked in mine safety for 25 years, said Bennett’s note points out the need for miners to have oxygen systems that can last longer. He added that the miner’s timeline suggests that the barricaded group found a pocket of clean, usable air that would have allowed them to use their oxygen systems only intermittently.

And while Oppegard understands concerns by families that the rescuers didn’t move faster, he said rescues are very dangerous and have to be done with “all deliberate speed.”

In 1976, 11 rescuers died when there was a second mine explosion in Letcher County, Ky.

“You don’t have a bunch of cowboys rushing in,” he said.

The first visitations ahead of funerals for the miners also began Saturday, with their funerals scheduled from today through Tuesday.

After their wrenching vigil of raised and shattered hopes during the recovery effort was played out in front of television cameras, the families took pains to carry out their grieving in private.

Police cars lined up to keep television trucks, reporters and others away from the visitation for 28-year-old David Lewis in Philippi.

In Buckhannon, two West Virginia State Police troopers guarded the entrance to a funeral home to keep reporters out of the visitation for 51-year-old Alva Bennett.

Gov. Joe Manchin spent about hour at a funeral home with the family of Jerry Lee Groves, 56, where he signed a guest book, presented relatives with a memorial proclamation from the state and hugged Groves’ sobbing mother, Wanda.

Next to Groves’ closed casket was a large photograph of him, decked out in full uniform, underground at the mine, and dozens of bouquets of flowers carrying notes of sympathy.

Among the others who came to pay their respects was a group of emergency workers who donned black patches on their uniforms with yellow lettering: “In memory of our fallen Sago miners.”

Back at Sago, 12 large black bows were tied around the entrance’s fence, and residents spent the day shuttled back and forth to the miners’ wakes, a chore Russell Lane said brought the emotional week full circle.

“They built this big balloon up in front of us. They got it up to its maximum volume, and then they came along and stuck the pin in it,” said Lane, 54. “It really doesn’t hit you until it’s all over and they’re all buried.”

Federal and state investigators have yet to enter the mine, where additional ventilation holes are being drilled to purge the mine of poisonous gases, a process that might not be completed for a few days.

Although the mine is closed, ICG’s Hatfield met with about 145 employees Saturday to assure them that there will be no layoffs.

He said employees would be paid for the whole week, and offered them temporary jobs at other ICG mines in the region.

The company has operations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Illinois.


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