Company faces tough questions
BUCKHANNON — State investigators, federal regulators and West Virginia lawmakers on Tuesday quizzed International Coal Group mine managers — and each other — as they continued their efforts to find out what caused the Sago Mine disaster.
Widows and daughters of the Sago miners joined in, to offer the toughest questioning in the first day of a landmark public hearing on the Jan. 2 explosion.
Peggy Cohen, the daughter of miner Fred Ware Jr., harshly criticized mine officials when they said they could not describe what pre-shift safety checks of the Sago mine found that morning.
“You sent my dad into the mines and nobody reviewed the fire-boss books first to make sure it was safe?” Cohen said. “That’s not part of your job to make sure the mine is safe?”
Pam Campbell, miner Marty Bennett’s sister-in-law, joined Cohen for two bruising sessions of interviews with a panel of nine Sago Mine officials.
When asked about delays in getting rescue teams to the mine, ICG President Ben Hatfield said the company was establishing a new rescue crew specifically for the Sago operation.
“It’s a little too late for us,” Campbell told Hatfield, to a loud round of applause from the families.
Questioning of the ICG panel continued into Tuesday evening, and one other lengthy panel scheduled for earlier in the day had not yet begun.
Hearing organizers and observers said they expected the proceedings would now have to stretch beyond the two days that had been scheduled.
Gov. Joe Manchin and his mine safety adviser, Davitt McAteer, organized the hearings into the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 workers and critically injured a thirteenth.
The hearing, in a gymnasium at West Virginia Wesleyan College, drew about 50 Sago family members, who sat in a section separate from media and other observers. Many of the more than 350 seats set aside for the general public went unfilled.
Manchin, who lost an uncle at the 1968 Farmington mine disaster, said he hoped the hearing would lead to answers that would help give the families closure.
“The tragedy at Sago was devastating and was something that no family should have to go through,” the governor said in an opening statement Tuesday morning.
McAteer said the hearing ends an era where “investigations of mine disasters in the United States have never involved the families of the victims.
“The families of the victims have more at stake than anyone else in this room,” McAteer said. “They want to know — their men — their husbands, fathers, sons, fiancés and friends — did not die in vain.
“They have right to expect those in authority to do right by their men,” he said. “They have a right to participate in this hearing, and they have a right to insist that their questions be answered.”
But families, their lawyers and mine safety experts attending the hearing grumbled after a Tuesday morning session in which federal officials questioned other federal officials and state officials questioned other state officials about their oversight of the Sago Mine.
United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said his organization represents some of the Sago miners, but was shut out from asking any questions.
Roberts, like other members of the public, was allowed to write questions on index cards and hope that hearing organizers would ask them.
“When I have a question, I write it down and pass it to the teacher,” Roberts told reporters in a briefing during a break in the hearings. “I’m a little frustrated by the process.”
Federal and state officials spent the morning describing what they said were increased inspections and enforcement actions early in 2005 to stop repeated mine safety problems at the Sago Mine.
One publicist for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration went so far as to distribute a fact sheet on “MSHA actions to enhance mine safety” in the middle of emotional testimony from Sago miners’ families.
Kevin Stricklin, MSHA’s district manager in Morgantown, said his office had repeated meetings with mine managers. Before the disaster occurred, MSHA coal mine administrator Ray McKinney had scheduled a meeting with top ICG safety officials for Jan. 6, Stricklin said — four days after the Sago explosion.
“The point I want to make is that we were engaged at the mine,” Stricklin said. “We were working to try to come up with solutions to try to make this a safer mine.”
In the afternoon, the ICG panel took hearing observers back to the 41 hours when nationwide television audiences clung to hope that the Sago miners would be rescued.
Jeff Toler, a mine superintendent, recalled that he and several other mine officials felt they had no choice but to give up a rescue attempt that took them as far as the entry of the 2 Left section where the trapped miners were found.
Toler said they worried that as they fixed mine ventilation systems deeper into the mine, they could have fueled a fire or pushed bad air back onto the miners.
“The smoke was dense and swirling,” said Toler, whose uncle Martin Toler died in the disaster. “And it took a long time to dissipate.”
Hatfield, the ICG president, said the company held off for several hours in correcting reports that all 12 miners were found alive because officials were still not sure exactly what to tell the families.
Sam Kitts, an ICG vice president, harshly criticized a story in Monday’s Charleston Gazette that described how the company had sent two crews of workers into the mine without first checking the source of a carbon monoxide alarm that went off 20 minutes before the explosion.
“What was reported in the press was not correct,” Kitts said. “The dispatcher did what he was supposed to do. When a CO monitor alarms, it is not required to evacuate the mine.”
Federal mine safety rules require that, when a carbon monoxide alarm goes off, all miners in the affected area “must be withdrawn promptly to a safe location” unless the alarm “is known not to be a hazard to miners.”
Kitts said the Sago Mine dispatcher determined by looking at his computer screen that the alarm was a “malfunction” of a carbon monoxide sensor.
In interviews with regulators, other Sago dispatchers have not been able to explain how that could be done. Instead, they have said such a reading would require an evacuation and a miner to be sent to investigate the alarm.
To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.