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Sago water pump may be blast clue

BUCKHANNON — A water pump that may hold clues to the cause of the Sago Mine disaster remains stuck in the mud deep inside the mine, state and federal officials disclosed Thursday.

A de-energized power cable attached to the pump could have provided a conduit for lightning to spark the Jan. 2 explosion at the mine, a state engineer said in a preliminary report.

Monte Hieb, an engineer with the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, called the pump cable “an attractive target for stray lightning.”

Hieb discussed the pump cable as part of a state-federal briefing on the government’s ongoing investigation of West Virginia’s worst mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

One miner was killed by the blast itself, and 11 others perished from carbon monoxide poisoning before rescue crews could reach them more than 40 hours later.

In the final day of a three-day public hearing called by Gov. Joe Manchin, investigators also said that they have not yet ruled out a roof fall as the trigger of the explosion that ripped through a sealed area of the Upshur County mine.

At the hearing’s end, family members of the Sago miners again discounted International Coal Group’s conclusion that lightning hit a poplar tree, jumped to a power line and then traveled four miles into the mine.

Sara Bailey noted that ICG announced its conclusions in mid-March, but did not have an expert report in hand until this week.

“The experts’ reports were not believable,” said Bailey, whose father, George Hamner, died in the mine. “They did not answer the questions.”

Peggy Ware, the daughter of miner Fred Ware Jr., added, “I have a lot of trouble with ICG’s lightning theory, or should I say hypothesis.”

The Sago public hearing ended in the same way it began, with powerful and emotional statements from the miners’ families.

“I miss my dad with all my heart,” said Russell Bennett, the son of miner Marty Bennett. “There hasn’t been a day go by since this explosion that tears have not been shed from these eyes.”

Pam Campbell, Marty Bennett’s sister-in-law, said that part of the blame for the explosion — and the inability to rescue the trapped miners — rests with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

“Today, MSHA is not working,” Campbell said. “It does not work, and in my opinion, it failed us as FEMA failed Hurricane Katrina victims.”

Ben Hatfield, ICG’s president, also sought to blame MSHA, repeating the company’s earlier comments that federal officials ignored company suggestions to send rescue teams in sooner and have them move faster.

Ray McKinney, MSHA’s administrator for coal mine safety and health, defended the agency’s record and its involvement in the rescue efforts.

“MSHA doesn’t own Sago coal company,” McKinney said. “MSHA doesn’t contract mine rescue teams for Sago coal company. And MSHA isn’t responsible if Sago coal company doesn’t train its people in what to do in an emergency.”

Davitt McAteer, the hearing chairman and Manchin’s mine safety adviser, said that the event was a success and urged everyone involved to keep pushing for answers and reforms.

“We’ve done something new here,” McAteer said. “It seems to help with the investigation. It seems to provide some new information.”

McAteer pointed to the 12 black-and-white miner portraits that hung behind the West Virginia Wesleyan College stage throughout the hearing.

“These 12 fellows were by all accounts fine men,” McAteer said. “It is our job to see that their deaths are not in vain and that changes come about, both in the Sago Mine and in mines around the world.”

In reporting preliminary findings, MSHA and state investigators said that they had examined the pump cable inside the sealed area where the explosion occurred, but not the pump itself.

Earlier in the week, Hatfield said that the pump had not been pulled out of the mine because government officials had not asked to examine it.

But Hieb said that investigators tried to retrieve it and were unable to do so.

“It’s been attempted and the attempt was unsuccessful,” Hieb said. “It’s stuck.”

Officials believe that the explosion was ignited about 1,200 to 1,500 feet inside the sealed area, at almost exactly the same spot as the end of the pump cable.

“There seems to be an interesting association between the end of the cable and the location of the explosion,” Hieb said.

About 1,350 feet of electrical cable runs from the pump and up out of the water, officials said. A control box for the pump was also submerged in deep water. It was hanging near a collection of wire mesh that is used to help support the mine roof inside the sealed area.

McAteer urged John Urosek, a top MSHA investigator, to not give up on examining the pump.

“Perhaps we could make another effort to try to retrieve the pump,” McAteer said. “This is an important factor for our investigation.”

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 email or call 348-1702.


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