Senators pay visit to Sago families
BUCKHANNON — Four U.S. senators who met Friday with the families of 12 coal miners killed at the Sago Mine vowed to find answers about what caused the Jan. 2 explosion, what went wrong afterward and how mine safety can be improved nationwide as a legacy to the lost men.
Although the senators gave few details about their private, nearly two-hour meeting, Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said he was troubled to hear that the families have not yet been involved in the accident investigation. He urged state and federal investigators to take time to talk to the relatives, who he said are extremely knowledgeable about the industry.
“Whoever’s doing the investigation, they won’t spend a better two hours than listening to the people we’ve just listened to,” he said.
Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the explosion that resulted in the deaths of 12 members of a 13-man crew at International Coal Group’s Sago Mine in Tallmansville, Upshur County. Survivor Randal McCloy Jr., 26, of Simpson continues to improve and remains in a “light coma” at West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.
Kennedy accompanied Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., to the meeting at West Virginia Wesleyan College with Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., whose committee oversees mine safety, and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the subcommittee on employment and workplace safety
The visit came as rescue teams hundreds of miles away tried to extinguish a smoldering a fire and locate two missing workers at the Alma No. 1 Mine in Melville, run by Massey Energy subsidiary Aracoma Coal.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., stayed in Washington to prepare for Monday’s hearing, which will be the first congressional oversight review of federal mine safety programs since 2002.
Kennedy and the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., held hearings in July 2002, to investigation MSHA’s enforcement at an Alabama coal mine where 13 miners died in September 2001 and the spill of more than 300 million gallons of slurry from a Kentucky coal waste impoundment in October 2000.
But two weeks after their hearing, MSHA assisted in the successful rescue of nine coal miners trapped in a flooded mine in Somerset County, Pa., and top agency officials became national heroes. Wellstone, who had led the charge to closely monitor MSHA, died in an October 2002 plane crash.
Also Friday, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers said the union has not yet agreed to be excluded from interviews that state and federal authorities are conducting as part of the investigation of the Sago explosion.
UMW spokesman Phil Smith said the union stayed out of Thursday’s interviews so they would not be delayed, but that UMW officials have not agreed to be blocked from future meetings.
Earlier this week, controversy erupted over the investigation interviews when ICG officials objected to the UMW taking part. The Sago Mine is a non-union operation, but several Sago miners took advantage of their legal right to designate the UMW as their “miners’ representative” in the investigation.
On Thursday, state and federal officials — including Gov. Joe Manchin — said both sides agreed to back off and that only government officials would attend the interviews. Smith said those reports were incorrect, and that the union continues to want access to the inquiry, especially to the on-site mine examination expected to start next week.
“The real proof is going to come when it comes time to go onto the mine property,” Smith said.
At Friday’s meeting in Buckhannon, relatives of the Sago miners came to the meeting armed with a long list of recommendations to make mines safer.
Kennedy said their suggestions included better surface-to-mine communication systems, better escape-and-rescue communications and pre-positioning lifesaving materials in the mines.
John Groves, brother of dead miner Jerry Groves, said after the meeting that the families told the politicians of their shared frustration with MSHA over what they perceived as an unnecessary bureaucratic delay in allowing rescue teams to enter the mine.
The first team went underground at about 5:30 p.m. — 11 hours after the explosion — even though several had been on standby for most of the day.
The brother of one trapped miner, a man who escaped the blast, tried to tell the state and federal regulators that they could enter the mine, and that he and other miners were ready and willing to go.
“They didn’t listen. They made him leave,” Groves said. “There were miners there, and they were ready to go in, and MSHA wouldn’t listen.”
Aside from learning the cause of the blast, Groves said, that delay is the single biggest concern of the families.
Rockefeller said he was troubled to learn that breathing equipment for miners has not changed since 1977.
“That cannot stand,” he said.
He agreed that investigators, regulators and Congress can learn from the Sago families.
“Just because they are called the miners’ families does not mean that they don’t know mining extremely well,” he said.
Rockefeller said he organized the trip to ensure that the senators have the information they need to conduct hearings on the Sago disaster next week in Washington, D.C.
Isakson took home one very personal item he said will keep him motivated as he works — a photo of one of the dead miners that he tucked into his chest pocket. He plans to keep it on a dresser in his Washington apartment.
He said the meeting was deeply emotional for everyone.
“There were a lot of tears shared,” Isakson said. “There was not a voice raised.”
Isakson said he promised the families their questions for MSHA will be answered, that MSHA will become a more effective agency because of Sago, and that he will work to make the coal mining industry safer.
Rockefeller said lessons must be learned and practices improved because the demand for coal will lead to more and more new coal mines.
“We’re all here sobered, with a serious purpose, with a determination to make sure this tragedy — to any extent we can possibly make it so — does not happen again,” he said.
Kennedy said the families delivered one clear message: “Get the job done, and get the job done right.”
“You’re not really going to get closure for these families about what happened to their loved ones — their brothers, their fathers, their sons — in that part of the mine which was dark, dreary and where they were losing hope until all the truth comes out and all the facts are on the table,” Kennedy said. “Then and only then will those families be able to look forward to a future with hope.