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Secret code led to false rescue news at Sago?

To see transcripts of the Sago mine interviews, please visit http://www.wvgazette.com/static/sago/

A secret code devised by International Coal Group officials to combat media eavesdropping might have played a role in false reports that 12 Sago Mine workers had been found alive, federal and state investigators have been told.

Tim Martin, corporate health and safety director for ICG, disclosed problems with the code in a sworn statement given to investigators late last month. Martin’s statement was among more than 70 previously confidential interview transcripts obtained last week by The Charleston Gazette.

As ICG’s top safety officer, Martin played a major role in overseeing the company’s part in the more than 40-hour effort to rescue 13 miners who were unaccounted for following the Jan. 2 explosion at the Upshur County mine.

Twelve miners died and the 13th was critically injured in the accident, the worst mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.

One miner is believed to have been killed by the initial blast. By late on the night of Jan. 3, hope appeared to be dimming that any of the other 12 had survived so many hours of exposure to high levels of poisonous carbon monoxide.

At about 11:45 p.m., initial reports — it is still not clear where they started or how they spread — indicated that all 12 missing miners were found alive. Rescuers figured out that those reports were wrong, but they did not inform the families for about three hours.

Federal officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration have blamed the incorrect reports on problems in relaying radio signals from the rescue team deep inside the mine to the command center on the surface.

At some point during the evening, Martin said, rescuers became concerned that “information from the command center was leaking to the press.”

“They had the state — the governor had the state policemen there to go around the perimeter and investigate, looking for someone that may have like a listening device or whatever,” Martin said.

Martin said he typed up a spreadsheet that listed each of the missing miners, and assigned them a number. Rescue teams were given a copy of the list, he said. If they found bodies, they were to identify them as “items” and by their “item number,” Martin said.

Jim Klug, captain of Consol Energy’s McElroy Mine rescue team, said he was given a copy of the list, but told to keep it a secret.

“Don’t even tell your team members,” Klug said an ICG official told him. “This is secret. The less people know about it, the better.”

Rescuers regained some hope when, at some point that night, they discovered the man-bus the missing miners had used, and evidence that the miners had opened and used their self-rescuer devices for emergency oxygen.

“We had pretty much given up hope that anybody was still alive,” said William Tucker, a member of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training’s rescue team. “And when they found the man-bus and it was empty and shortly after found the rescuers, you know, everybody was pretty excited. You know, we had hope then that they were still alive.”

At that point, managers of the rescue decided to have the elite McElroy Mine rescue team make a push toward the face of the 2 Left section, where the missing miners might be barricaded. This would take the team more than twice the normal distance from their fresh-air base.

Klug, captain of the McElroy team, testified that his group then jumped ahead of the Tri-State Mine Rescue team, which had some equipment malfunctioning.

“And they were an inexperienced team,” Klug said. “They had never done anything really like this and wanted to know if we would bypass that team and have them as a backup. And we said, ‘No problem, we’ll go.’”

Several rescuers told investigators they found the missing miners because they heard Randal McCloy, the only survivor, moaning and trying to breathe.

“It sounded like a snore, real hard snore,” testified Ronald Hixson, a member of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s mine rescue unit.

Klug and Tucker were the first rescuers to enter the area where the miners had barricaded themselves behind ventilation curtains to try to protect the little fresh air they had left.

“They were all there pretty close together, probably within 50 feet of each other along the rib, and a couple were laying in the middle of the entry,” Tucker told investigators. “They had cut curtain, had pieces of curtain that they were laying on, and sitting on.”

Klug told investigators that another miner had fallen over on top of McCloy. Klug speculated that might have helped McCloy survive.

“The big gentleman that fell over on top of him was on his chest, and he didn’t — he wasn’t taking as deep as breaths as the rest of the people,” Klug said. “And I think it probably — it kept him warm.”

Klug and other rescuers scrambled to try to insert an oxygen-providing rescuer into McCloy’s mouth. They ran through several of the devices before they got one to work.

“His mouth, his muscles had really tightened up and it was real hard for [Klug] to get the mouthpiece in,” Tucker said.

Several different rescue team members checked over the other miners, and concluded that none of them were alive, according to the sworn statements.

Rescuers got a stretcher, and strapped McCloy to it to begin carrying him to the nearest mine car to get him out of the mine. At least one rescuer testified that the stretcher did not have a strap, and they had to tie McCloy’s bootlaces together to hold him to the stretcher.

Hixson, the MSHA rescue team member, described it as “a really tough carry.”

“We basically had a man at the foot of the stretcher, a man at the head of the stretcher and three — basically two or three guys on each side,” Hixson told investigators.

Once the rescuers were able to turn McCloy over to medical teams that had entered the mine, Klug and the others learned that those outside the mine — including the families — had received incorrect reports that all 12 miners were found alive.

Klug called to the surface to report the truth.

“They wanted me to tell him items, item one, item two, you know,” Klug recalled in his interview. “They didn’t want any names coming over, because they said people were eavesdropping and stuff like that. So I told him we had 11 items, and he said, ‘What?’

“I said, ‘We got 11 items,’” Klug said. “And he said, ‘Forget the code. What do you mean?’ I said, ‘There are 11 deceased people.’”

In his interview, Martin indicated that he believes officials in the command center might have misunderstood an initial report — not the one from Klug — about rescuers finding 11 “items.”

Martin said he had heard the reports that 12 miners were found alive, and went to the command center to try to confirm those reports.

“The word came across from one of the crew members on the phone that we have one coming out on a stretcher and 11 items,” Martin testified. “And it just hit me like a ton of bricks that I knew what that meant. But then I could see that the rest of the room didn’t understand.”

Martin said he told command center officials to try to confirm the report.

“I had to kind of raise my voice pretty loud to get them to listen to me,” he said. “And the answer came back, we have one on a stretcher and 11 items. And they turned to me and said, ‘See, we’re OK,’ or something to that effect.

“I said, ‘Listen, are you all forgetting about the code of an item?’ I said, ‘Tell them to drop the code and just tell us what they’ve got as far as survivors.’

“So they called back in and said, ‘Do you have 11 survivors and one on a stretcher?’ And they said, ‘No, it’s the other way around.’

“And that’s when everyone finally understood that, you know, we had fatalities,” Martin said. “And again, you know the emotions of the room just — it’s almost like everybody in the room died. It was pretty tough.”

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continued reporting on mine safety and the Sago Mine disaster is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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