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Sago survivor out of ICU, still unconscious

The sole survivor of the Sago Mine disaster was moved out of intensive care on Tuesday, as investigators started closed-door interviews aimed at pinpointing the cause of the Jan. 2 explosion.

In Morgantown, Randal McCloy, 26, remained in serious condition at West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital. McCloy has been breathing without assistance for several days, but has not regained consciousness, hospital officials said.

In Clarksburg, federal and state investigators conducted two interviews as part of their joint probe into the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.

Dirk Fillpot, a spokesman for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, declined to identify those interviewed.

MSHA officials and state mine safety representatives have also not released their preliminary list of those they plan to question about the explosion. The interviews Tuesday were attended by MSHA officials, representatives of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, and International Coal Group, which owns the Sago Mine.

At the same time, the United Mine Workers announced that union officials had been designated as the official “miners’ representative” in the Sago disaster investigation.

International Coal Group’s Sago Mine is a nonunion operation, but the UMW said that several individual miners signed papers designating the union as their representative. Under federal mine safety law, that gives the UMW the right to take part in the investigation and attend the otherwise closed-door interviews.

“This is a courageous act by these miners, and is frankly something they likely would not have done had they not been assured anonymity by MSHA and the state,” said UMW President Cecil Roberts.

Also Tuesday, a U.S. Senate hearing into the Sago Mine disaster was delayed until Monday. The hearing, organized by Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., had been scheduled for Thursday.

Twelve miners were killed and McCloy critically injured in the Jan. 2 explosion at ICG’s Sago Mine south of Buckhannon.

So far, investigators believe that the blast occurred in an area of the mine that had been sealed just a month earlier because of repeated roof falls. They do not yet know what ignited the blast.

Rescuers tried unsuccessfully to save all 13 miners, 12 of whom were found behind a makeshift barricade built to try to keep out deadly carbon monoxide.

McCloy, the only survivor, is continuing his slow recovery, said Dr. Larry Roberts, director of the Jon Michael Moore Trauma Center at WVU Hospitals.

Roberts said McCloy’s heart and liver have continued to improve, but that “there is still no indication of how much of his physical and mental abilities he will recover.”

Gov. Joe Manchin has promised a complete — and public — investigation of the disaster and the miscommunication that led families of the miners to believe for more than three hours that 12 workers had been found alive.

On Tuesday, Manchin spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said the governor always understood that state and federal interviews would be held privately, as they typically are during mine fatality investigations.

Ramsburg said Manchin promised a public hearing later to allow families and other interested parties to hear what investigators had found and offer their own views on avoiding future such disasters.

Davitt McAteer, a former MSHA chief and, like Manchin, a Marion County native, is advising the governor on the probe and writing his own report.

“Our goal was not to interfere with the process as it was always set to begin,” Ramsburg said. “We’ve put the process in place to ensure that we are able to follow the process, the families are kept up to date, and we have a public hearing that allows everybody to participate.”

Mine safety advocates, including McAteer, had urged MSHA to invoke a section of federal law that allows all of the interviews to be held in public.

On Tuesday, Fillpot declined to explain why MSHA had not done so, except to say that federal officials would participate in the state’s public hearing.

Roberts of the UMW said that union safety representatives would be on site today and “will be there every day as we learn more about the events that led up to this tragedy.”

“Be assured that we will pursue every avenue as we seek to understand what happened at Sago, because the truth is that when it comes to safety, we represent every miner in America and Canada whether he or she chooses to pay dues to this union or not,” Roberts said.

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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