Evacuation alarm went unheeded
At 6:10 a.m. on Jan. 2, a light on Sago Mine dispatcher Bill Chisolm’s computer screen changed from green to red.
The red light was an alarm. It warned Chisolm of an increase in carbon monoxide levels along the conveyor belt in Sago’s 1 Left section.
Under mine policy and federal rules, the 26 parts per million of carbon monoxide detected should have prompted an evacuation. Workers should have been cleared from areas deeper underground, probably including a crew headed to work in the next section over, called 2 Left.
But Chisolm ignored the alarm. He was sure it was a malfunction, and not a real signal of any problems underground, according to a sworn statement given to government investigators.
About 20 minutes later, shortly after 6:30 a.m., an explosion ripped through the Sago Mine.
One miner, fireboss Terry Helms, was killed by the blast. Twelve others — all headed to work in 2 Left — were trapped. By the time rescuers reached them more than 40 hours later, 11 of the miners were dead. Only Randal McCloy Jr. survived.
Over the past three months, federal and state investigators questioned Chisholm and other Sago Mine officials about the carbon monoxide alarm during closed-door interviews.
Investigators and mine safety experts do not necessarily believe that the alarm was a warning of conditions that caused the Jan. 2 explosion. But, as public hearings on the Sago disaster begin this week, mine safety experts want to know whether the warning, if heeded, might have saved lives by clearing the mine before the blast.
Questions about the 6:10 a.m. alarm are adding to the mounting evidence of serious mine safety problems at Sago prior to an explosion that caused West Virginia’s worst coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.
“There are 12 miners dead, and that deserves answers,” said Tony Oppegard, a longtime mine safety advocate and former mine safety prosecutor in Kentucky. “There were serious problems at this mine.”
In interviews with investigators, employees of mine owner International Coal Group have revealed a variety of new information about the mine and the explosion. For example, Sago Mine officials were in the process of building a new underground maintenance shop near the outside of a sealed area where the explosion might have occurred.
And, contrary to previous reports, miners did work at Sago on Jan. 1 — the day before the explosion — although they did not produce coal. Instead, a handful of miners performed maintenance work.
Earnest Webb, another maintenance foreman, said he worked Sunday evening to help repair a water pump near the 1 Left section.
Webb told investigators that there was a mantrip battery-charging machine located near the entrance to the 2 Left section. He also said he found welding equipment at the site where the maintenance shop was being built.
“The welder was there, but it was not powered up,” Webb said in a Feb. 17 interview. “I know that for a fact, because I reached down to turn it on to see if it was powered up and it wasn’t powered up.”
Motorman Harold Baisden said he worked Sunday, and helped unstop a waterline on the 2 Left section.
On the carbon monoxide issue, mine officials testified that Sago was equipped with a series of carbon monoxide monitors along various conveyor belts throughout the mine.
Mine operators must monitor carbon monoxide closely on belt lines, to watch for signs of fires. Belts can heat up, and various parts can rub together, causing friction. Coal dust can accumulate on belts.
Under federal rules, mine dispatchers are required to closely investigate the cause of any carbon monoxide alarm that indicates more than 10 parts per million of the gas. Miners who are not investigating the problem are to be evacuated from the area, the rules state.
At Sago, several mine dispatchers testified that they received very limited training on how to respond to mine carbon monoxide alarms. Several dispatchers were unable to answer detailed questions investigators asked about logs from the mine’s carbon monoxide monitoring system.
Dispatcher Nathan Eye testified that when he took the job, it “was supposed to be a temporary position over there, and I kind of got stuck with it.”
Eye said he did not know what concentration of carbon monoxide would require a mine evacuation.
“It had never really been discussed, but I would figure anything about 20 parts per million would be way too much to leave anybody [inside],” Eye said.
Dispatchers told investigators that the carbon monoxide alarms frequently malfunctioned at the Sago Mine.
“I’ve had CO monitors malfunction for no apparent reason,” dispatcher Vernon Hofer said during a Jan. 23 interview. “They just malfunction.
“And I don’t know the cause of the malfunction or why they — and when they show an alarm, if at the point in time that I check them, everything appears to be OK,” Hofer said.
Dispatchers also indicated they used the alarm system for purposes other than keeping an eye on carbon monoxide levels.
Chisolm told investigators that dispatchers would set off audible carbon monoxide alarms in the Sago Mine, “if you’re having trouble getting a hold of a section, it could be maybe your mom called, she’s in the hospital or anything.”
In interviews with investigators, Sago Mine managers also have revealed that they regularly failed to keep accurate records of the operations of the mine fan that was meant to keep clean air flowing through the underground workings.
Denver Wilfong, the mine maintenance foreman and chief electrician, discussed that problem in a two-day interview with the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training and the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
An automated system was used to record the fan’s air pressure, with a pen stylus that draws a circle on a piece of paper. But mine managers needed to install a new chart every week, or the pen would “run over” the previous week’s records.
While rescuers were scrambling to try to save the Sago miners, they asked Wilfong for the morning’s fan charts to help them understand conditions in the mine. Wilfong told investigators that he had to install a new chart, because the chart had “run over” sometime over that weekend.
“It wasn’t changed on the weekend,” Wilfong said. “It was a miscue, I guess.”
Investigators showed Wilfong numerous fan charts from October 2005 that showed the same problem. They also showed him charts for several weeks in December 2005 with the same flaw.
During a Feb. 17 interview, MSHA investigator Dennis Swentosky asked Wilfong to explain why Sago officials repeatedly did not replace the fan charts.
“We had a big turnover of people, is all I can tell you, at our mine,” Wilfong said. “We just got enough people on board here recently at this mine to get things halfway right.”
Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continued coverage of 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.