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Sago probe full of mystery

Federal and state investigators are finding some mysterious inconsistencies as they go through the Sago Mine to try to find the cause of the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 miners.

“There is conflicting evidence,” Davitt McAteer, Gov. Joe Manchin’s adviser on mine safety, said during a Thursday press briefing at the state Capitol. “You have to scratch your head.”

As an example, McAteer cited the condition of roof bolts near the sealed area of the mine where International Coal Group officials say the explosion occurred.

To hold up a mine roof, long bolts are inserted into the roof. A rectangular plate is attached at the bottom of the bolt, flat against the roof.

McAteer said that investigators expected the plates to be bent in the same direction by the force of the blast. But at Sago, they found something quite different: Plates were bent in various directions, some with all four corners of the plates bent down from the roof.

“There are some bent in the same direction,” McAteer said. “There are some bent in two different directions. There are some bent in three different directions, and some bent like tulips, in four directions.”

Mine safety experts are still in the early stages of their Sago investigation, and will have plenty of similar puzzles to try to piece together.

McAteer has promised Manchin at least a preliminary report by July 1. But a final study by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration might not be published for more than a year.

Bob Friend, acting deputy administrator of MSHA, said Thursday that investigation interviews have been halted temporarily while teams comb underground for physical evidence.

Doug Conaway, director of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, said that about 20 interviews have been completed so far.

Six teams fanned out underground to begin mapping conditions after the blast, Conaway said. The sealed area is a focus, he said.

“There’s some damage back there,” he said. “We’re trying to map that, and put together an estimated blast path.”

The investigation is one of the largest in coal industry history, with United Mine Workers representatives and ICG officials joining MSHA and the state Office of Miners Health Safety and Training for the on-site review. At one point last week, more than 90 people were underground at one time, McAteer said.

Investigators are examining dust patterns inside the mine, looking for potential equipment problems, and reviewing huge amounts of data on gas levels underground and problems noted in previous inspections.

“You comb through the pieces of information, try to deal with what you’ve got and come up with some answers,” McAteer said.

McAteer said that investigators have found no equipment left in the sealed-off area of the mine, perhaps eliminating one potential ignition source. Also, he said he was not aware of any evidence of a roof fall in the sealed area. A roof fall could also have caused a spark that ignited the blast.

McAteer, who ran MSHA during the Clinton administration, is currently a vice president at Wheeling Jesuit University. During Thursday’s briefing, he said that students and faculty at Wheeling Jesuit — as well as from West Virginia University, Marshall University and West Virginia Wesleyan College — have offered help in the investigation and public hearings to be held later this year.

Students and faculty are helping with some scientific and legal research, and assisting in the logistics of planning the public hearings, McAteer said.

McAteer cautioned reporters and others from speculating about the cause of the Sago disaster until all of the evidence is in. He said he would not personally speculate because, “I’ve been wrong about these things too many times.”

“A good investigation team will let the facts drive the theory,” McAteer said.

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


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