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“I think I said ‘they’re alive,’ ” rescuer tells hearing panel

BUCKHANNON — A federal mine rescuer who found the trapped Sago Mine workers apologized Wednesday to families for the erroneous reports that all 12 miners were found alive.

“We apologize for any of the problems or heartache that our miscommunication caused,” said Ron Hixson, a rescue team member from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

“That was not meant to be,” Hixson said during the second day of a public hearing into the cause of the Jan. 2 disaster that killed 12 miners and critically injured a 13th.

During the same session, state mine rescuer William Tucker revealed that his confused shouts may have played a role in the false reports that led families to believe their loved ones had survived a 40-hour underground ordeal.

Tucker, also a state inspector, was among the first handful of rescuers who found the miners barricaded behind a ventilation curtain deep within the Sago Mine’s 2 Left section.

“I think I said, ‘they’re alive,’ ” Tucker recalled. “That might have been one of the communications errors.”

In a previous interview with government investigators, Tucker had told a similar story.

Tucker said that he and other rescuers found the miners when they heard moans as Sago survivor Randal McCloy Jr. struggled for breath.

“And I started screaming, ‘We need help. We need help,’ ” Tucker previously told investigators. “And I mean, when you first looked, in my mind at that point, you know, I thought that most of them were dead.

“But I was hollering back for help, and I said, ‘They’re over here. They’re over here,’ and ‘They’re alive,’ ” Tucker added.

But Tucker’s previous statement to investigators was made during a closed-door interview in late March. Wednesday’s statement was the first time he and other rescuers have explained their efforts publicly to the Sago victims’ families.

After the emotional presentation, more than 50 family members at Wednesday’s hearing applauded. During a break after the presentation, many family members rushed to the stage to hug Hixson, Tucker and other rescuers.

After lunch, hearing chairman Davitt McAteer read a prepared statement in response to early news reports about Tucker’s testimony.

“By now I think it should be made clear to all of us that the miscommunication was a systematic problem, and not the result of an individual error or carelessness,” McAteer said. “Cleary, it had more to do with the limitations of equipment — communications equipment, and speaking while under apparatus — than with the limitations of human beings.

“It would be extremely regrettable, in my view, if the burden of sorrow that the mine rescue team members already carry is made even harder by being misidentified in the media as the source of the miscommunication,” McAteer said.

“I know the families appreciate what the mine rescue team members tried to do for their loved ones,” McAteer said. “If I have anything to say about it, no one will be scapegoated around here for what happened in the stress of the mine rescue effort underground.”

During their questioning Wednesday, family members reserved their toughest grilling and their harshest criticism for MSHA and state officials who controlled when rescue team members entered the mine and how quickly they moved to the areas where the miners were believed to be trapped.

Ann Merideth, the daughter of Sago miner James Bennett, said the miners followed standard procedures — trying to escape and then barricading when they couldn’t get out — but were left to die while the rescue effort hit repeated delays.

“Those men, they sat there and waited,” Merideth told MSHA district manager Kevin Stricklin. “They did what they were trained to do, and you didn’t do what you told them you would. You failed these miners.”

Stricklin said that MSHA officials waited for hours to allow rescue teams in the mine because high carbon monoxide levels indicated the threat of a second explosion or a raging fire.

Stricklin noted that he personally helped investigate the September 2001 disaster at a Jim Walter Resources mine in Alabama where most of the 13 miners who died were killed by a secondary explosion that occurred while they were trying to rescue an injured coworker.

“That’s something that we’re all aware of,” Stricklin said. “We realize the possibility of a secondary explosion.

“We not only have to get in as quickly as we can, but we have to protect the mine rescue teams,” he said.

Stricklin also said, though, that it was up to mine owner International Coal Group to come up with a rescue plan, and submit it to MSHA for regulators to approve.

The first rescue plan was not submitted for MSHA review until 2:45 p.m.

The explosion is believed to have occurred at 6:30 a.m., and rescue teams did not enter the mine until after 5:30 p.m.

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


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