An explosion ripped through the Sago Mine at about 6:30 a.m. last Monday.
At 1:30 p.m., the first rescue team waited outside the mine. They couldn't get started until a backup crew arrived.
Not until after 5:30 p.m. — nearly 12 hours after the explosion —would rescuers go underground to search for the Sago miners.
To industry officials, labor representatives and mine rescue personnel, this gut-wrenching delay came as no surprise. For more than a decade, all sides of the mining community have complained that the nation's mine rescue system is broken.
Last week's 40-hour, mostly unsuccessful rescue effort at the Sago Mine has revealed serious flaws in the network of rescue teams meant to save coal miners caught underground by fires, explosions or floods.
A Sunday Gazette-Mail investigation has found that the nation's miners face a mounting risk because of a rescue system that is growing ever short on personnel and is in major need of reforms.
No one questions the skill and dedication of the miners who serve on rescue crews in West Virginia and other mining states. But across the country, the number of mine rescue teams available to respond to coal industry emergencies is slowly but surely dwindling.
Over the past 30 years, the number of teams taking part in the once-popular national mine safety contest has dropped by nearly 70 percent, according to U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration records.
From 2000 to 2002 alone, the number of MSHA-approved safety teams nationwide dropped by 10 percent.
By law, every coal mine in the United States must have at least two mine rescue crews. As of 2004, the latest year for which figures are available, there was actually just one rescue team for every four underground coal mines nationwide, according to a computer-assisted analysis of the MSHA data.
Since at least 1995, the United Mine Workers union repeatedly has warned about the "depleted rescue team structure in this country."
In a 2002 letter to MSHA, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Deep Mine Safety wrote that the "loss of experience" and "lack of readily available" rescue team members "has been dramatic."
As rescuers retire, their positions are going unfilled. Smaller coal companies are opting not to have their own teams, and instead contracting out to rescue companies.
More than a decade ago, a major federal report prepared by a conference of industry, labor and rescue team representatives urged speedy action by MSHA to do something to reverse the troubling erosion of the country's mine emergency response system.
Three years ago, a study team originally started by the Clinton administration drafted a plan to upgrade MSHA's mine rescue program. After professing interest in the plan, and holding a public hearing to accept comments, the Bush administration in December 2002 quietly scuttled the reform effort.
Today, nothing has been done, and the situation grows worse.
"We're going to be in a heck of a mess here if we don't figure out a solution to this," then-UMW safety director Joe Main warned during one public meeting in March 2002.
Learning from disasters
When it rewrote the federal Mine Health and Safety Act in 1977, Congress noted that several recent disasters involved bungled rescue efforts or the failure of mine operators to properly plan or execute escape plans.
For example, one congressional report noted, when 20 miners died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the Cargill salt mine fire in Belle Isle, La., in 1968, investigators found that "firefighting equipment was lacking and mine rescue teams were not maintained by any of the salt mining companies in the area."
That same House report noted terrible rescue problems at the 1972 Sunshine silver mine fire at Kellogg, Idaho, where 91 miners died of carbon monoxide poisoning. A Bureau of Mines final report on the Sunshine disaster found that company officials wrongly delayed an evacuation while they searched for the fire, failed to train their miners in self-rescue and survival techniques, and did not conduct evacuation drills.
In the landmark 1977 safety law rewrite, Congress required the newly created MSHA to write new regulations to "provide that mine rescue teams shall be available for rescue and recovery work to each underground coal or other mine in the event of an emergency."
The law added that, "the costs of making advance arrangements for such teams shall be borne by the operator of each such mine."
Generally, the new rules required mining companies to provide two rescue teams for every mine operation. With limited exceptions, these teams must be located within "two hours ground travel time" from each mine.
The rules set out requirements for equipment for rescue teams, and for training team members. Also, they spelled out specific requirements for those team members. They had to be in good shape, have good eyesight and hearing, and not have health problems such as high blood pressure or heart conditions.
But, the rules also contained some loopholes. Most significantly, they allowed operators to avoid providing the rescue teams themselves at their mine sites, if the companies instead chose to contract out for an off-site team.
'You have to be quick'
At the Sago Mine, company officials chose to contract out their rescue team to the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training, which operates its own emergency crew, according to one MSHA official.
That team was one of the crews that responded and handled rescue efforts last week.
MSHA has not released an official list of the rescue teams that responded, what times they were called in, or when they arrived on site at the Sago Mine.
But various sources say that a local team from Barbour County was involved. Teams from Pittsburgh-based Consol Energy's various mines in north-central West Virginia and western Pennsylvania also took part. At least one team from Illinois apparently was on standby to respond.
During a media briefing shortly after the Sago incident began, International Coal Group Vice President Gene Kitts complained that it was "cumbersome" to track down backup rescue crews because the explosion occurred on a holiday.
The West Virginia medical examiner has not released the times of death for the miners. Without that information, it's impossible to know for sure, but some safety experts said privately that the time spent waiting for a backup crew could have been very important to the Sago miners.
The miners survived for at least 10 hours after the blast, according to a 4:25 p.m. journal entry in one of the miners' notes to his family, according to The Associated Press.
On Saturday, a spokesman for International Coal Group, Mark Barkett, told The New York Times that the main reason for the delay was concern about high carbon monoxide levels inside the mine. Barkett said that the high levels had raised concerns about fire.
But in a press briefing Monday afternoon, ICG general counsel Roger Nicholson explained the delay this way: "I would say that it's merely a fact of mustering, getting your equipment and heading to the mine site, which is somewhat remote, comparatively speaking."
Officials from MSHA have not released a timeline of the rescue effort, or any documents — such as logs of the rescue team arrival times and the mine carbon monoxide tests — that might explain the delay more completely.
Davitt McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, said, "the first rule of mine rescue is that you have to be quick.
"If you're in Alaska, I could see it taking 12 hours," said McAteer, a Marion County native. "But you're in West Virginia. It should not take 12 hours to get teams together."
A few years ago, the Sago Mine could have gotten a rescue crew from MSHA's nearby district office in Morgantown. But the Morgantown MSHA office no longer has its own mine rescue team.
"We don't really don't have a team, per se," said Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's Morgantown district manager. "We have an MSHA-wide unit now."
Instead of a six-person, stand-alone team in Morgantown, MSHA now has three Morgantown staffers assigned to a 30-person nationwide agency emergency crew.
Stricklin said Ray McKinney, MSHA's coal mine safety chief, wanted to move away from separate rescue crews at various agency offices. Instead, McKinney has spread rescue expertise among a few staffers in each agency office.
To see transcripts of the Sago mine interviews, please visit http://www.wvgazette.com/static/sago/