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McCloy: Sago miners hit gas pocket 3 weeks before blast

Workers at the Sago Mine hit a pocket of explosive gas three weeks before the Jan. 2 blast that killed 12 workers, the sole survivor of the disaster said this week.

Randal McCloy Jr. described the incident — and the final hours of his co-workers — in a letter to the families of Sago disaster victims.

McCloy reported that four of the emergency breathing devices issued to the Sago miners did not work, forcing the trapped miners to share them in a desperate attempt to survive.

“I shared my rescuer with Jerry Groves, while Junior Toler, Jesse Jones and Tom Anderson sought help from others,” McCloy wrote. “There were not enough rescuers to go around.”

McCloy also said that Anderson and Toler made a last-ditch effort to find a way out of the mine.

“The heavy smoke and fumes caused them to quickly return,” McCloy wrote. “There was just so much gas.”

McCloy’s three-page letter, marked “Confidential” and dated Wednesday, was given to Sago families during a private meeting Wednesday. Family members have been meeting periodically with state and federal officials to hear updates on the Sago investigation, and privately with a team of lawyers representing the various widows, children and other loved ones.

Despite an agreement among the families to keep the letter private until the start of a public hearing next week, copies were leaked to the media and received widespread coverage via The Associated Press.

The families of victims Anderson, Jim Bennett, Alva Martin Bennett, Groves, George “Junior” Hamner, Terry Helms, David Lewis, Fred Ware Jr. and Marshall Winans released a statement through Morgantown attorney Jane E. Peak late Thursday that they do not wish to comment during “a very difficult time” and hope to have their privacy respected before the public hearings next week.

Several families will release a statement next week after the hearings, Peak said.

One worker was killed by the Jan. 2 explosion and 11 others perished before rescue teams reached them more than 40 hours later. McCloy was trapped with the 11 other miners, but somehow survived and is continuing what his doctors say is a miracle recovery from serious carbon monoxide poisoning.

The accident was the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years, and has spurred numerous calls for improved mine safety enforcement and tougher regulations.

In the first paragraph of his letter, McCloy recounted that three weeks before the disaster, he and Toler, “found a gas pocket while drilling a bolt hole in the mine roof.

“Our detector confirmed the presence of methane,” McCloy wrote. “We immediately shut down the roof bolter [machine], and the incident was reported up the line to our superiors. I noticed the following day that the gas leak had been plugged with glue normally used to secure the bolts.”

It was not immediately clear if the incident McCloy described meant anything for investigators trying to determine the cause of the Sago explosion.

So far, investigators have said that they believe that a spark ignited methane that had built up behind the seals installed in an area of the mine that was closed because of repeated roof falls. McCloy did not say where in the mine he and Toler found the methane pocket.

In his letter, McCloy said that the trapped miners pounded a sledgehammer on mine bolts and plates to try to signal rescue teams. When they received no response, the miners gave up.

The air in their makeshift shelter “grew worse, so I tried to lie as low as possible and take shallow breaths,” McCloy wrote.

“We were worried and afraid, but we began to accept our fate,” he wrote. “Junior Toler led us all in the Sinners Prayer.

“As time went on, I became very dizzy and lightheaded,” McCloy wrote. “Some drifted off into what appeared to be a deep sleep, and one person sitting near me collapsed and fell off his bucket, not moving. ...

“As my trapped co-workers lost consciousness one by one, the room grew still and I continued to sit and wait, unable to do much else,” he wrote. “I have no idea how much time went by before I also passed out from the gas and smoke, awaiting rescue.

“I cannot begin to express my sorrow for my lost friends and my sympathy for those they left behind,” McCloy concluded. “I cannot explain why I was spared while the others perished. I hope that my words will offer some solace to the miners’ families and friends who have endured what no one should ever have to endure.”

On Thursday, Davitt McAteer, Gov. Joe Manchin’s adviser on mine safety issues, said that McCloy’s comments about the failure of the breathing devices — called self-contained, self-rescuers, or SCSRs — will be addressed during the hearing.

“This raises questions about the devices and about the training miners receive,” McAteer said. “We really need to work on this system to make sure these work for the miners.”

In his letter, McCloy said that, after the explosion, “The first thing we did was activate our rescuers, as we had been trained.”

McCloy said that four of the devices did not work, but did not describe the problems in any detail.

In a prepared statement, ICG said that it provides workers with SCSRs made by Pittsburgh-based CSE Corp. The company said that they are “widely used in the coal industry and are approved for use by MSHA.”

ICG said that all of the rescuers were within their manufacturer-suggested life.

According to the company, the devices found with the Sago miners “were deployed and showed varying degrees of usage. The federal investigators did not note any defective SCSRs and all SCSRs appeared to be in working order.”

In a prepared statement, MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot said that his agency, “would like to reassure all underground coal miners that the SCSRs used in U.S. mines have proven to be reliable and effective rescue devices.

“Initial testing conducted by MSHA and NIOSH on all SCSRs recovered after the explosion at the Sago Mine found that those that were activated would have functioned properly,” Fillpot said. “MSHA is looking at whether the miners received adequate training in the use of the SCSRs. MSHA is also initiating an effort with state agencies to ensure that miners are properly trained in SCSR use nationwide.”

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continued reporting on the Sago Mine disaster and mine safety 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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