Our options were next to none’
Sago Mine survivor Randal McCloy tried proper procedures to start emergency oxygen packs that McCloy says failed four fellow miners who perished in the Jan. 2 disaster, investigators have learned.
McCloy was able to start his own self-contained self-rescuer, or SCSR, but found problems when he tried to help with four other miners’ devices.
In an interview last week, McCloy explained that he tried to blow into the devices that were malfunctioning — the recommended way to jump-start an SCSR that does not immediately activate.
McCloy told investigators that he tried especially hard to start the rescuer that belonged to his mining partner Jerry Groves, one of 11 miners who succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning deep inside the Sago Mine.
“You put air into it, you moved it, but there was nothing going on with it,” McCloy testified. “That’s what told me right there it was broken.
“I fought with it for I don’t know how long, trying to mess with that valve, blow air through it, or anything I could do, but nothing would work,” McCloy told state and federal officials.
Last week’s interview was the first time McCloy has told his version of the Sago story to government investigators. The lone Sago survivor continues what his doctors call a miraculous recovery from serious carbon monoxide poisoning after spending more than 40 hours trapped underground.
One of McCloy’s co-workers was killed by the Jan. 2 explosion, and 11 others died waiting for rescue crews to reach them.
Today, the state’s lead Sago investigator, Davitt McAteer, is scheduled to provide a public update on his probe of the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.
Initially, Gov. Joe Manchin had promised a report from McAteer by July 1. That date has been pushed back to July 19, in part so that McAteer can include McCloy’s testimony and follow up on several leads from that interview.
McCloy talked with investigators for about 90 minutes. He was accompanied by his lawyer, Stephen Goodwin, and his wife, Anna McCloy.
The interview at a Morgantown hotel was conducted by McAteer and by Ray McKinney, administrator for coal mine safety and health at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, and MSHA lawyer Ed Clair.
A 96-page transcript of McCloy’s interview was posted Wednesday morning on the Web site of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training: www.wvminesafety.org/sagointerviews.htm.
McCloy said he heard the explosion “a little bit in the distance” after he and the other miners had gotten off a mantrip that carried them into the mine that morning.
The miners were not knocked over by the force of the blast, he said.
“It wasn’t that — it was just like wind, you know,” McCloy said.
The miners re-boarded the mantrip and tried to escape, but debris blocked the vehicle, McCloy said. The miners believed the debris and smoke were blocking any potential exit on foot.
At one point after the blast, the airflow in the mine appeared to change, pushing dust and possibly poisonous gases back onto the trapped miners.
“It actually did kind of change,” McCloy said. “It kind of took everything, the air, into a circle, so it never did actually leave. So you know, it just stayed right there.”
Investigators are still trying to piece together how badly the explosion damaged the mine’s ventilation system, and whether makeshift efforts by mine managers to repair it made matters worse by shifting the air flow back onto the trapped miners.
“We couldn’t escape the smoke,” McCloy said. “There was nowhere to go because it just lingered everywhere, you know, just everywhere you went.
“...Our options were next to none.”
McCloy described the miners’ efforts to barricade themselves behind a piece of plastic curtain to seal out deadly gases created by the explosion.
As he did in an earlier letter to the Sago families, McCloy described how the miners took turns banging a sledgehammer on a roof bolt.
If they are forced to barricade underground, miners are trained to bang on roof bolts after they hear three shots from an MSHA seismic system that can be used to find trapped miners.
“I figured they’d bring that machine down and would have found us, would have drilled the hole in the right spot and would have taken us out of there,” McCloy said. “That’s what I expected. I expected to hear shots fire on the roof ... and didn’t hear anything.
“We banged and banged and banged, everyone did,” McCloy said. “We had a discussion about that, about how long it was going to take.
“We thought that we were going to get rescued,” McCloy said. “And as time went on, it didn’t look good.”
During a May public hearing, MSHA district manager Kevin Stricklin said the agency’s seismic equipment was not needed because rescuers knew the general area where the miners were trapped.
John Urosek, an MSHA expert, testified it would have taken too long to transport and set up the seismic gear at Sago.
Under questioning from McAteer, Urosek said that the equipment has not contributed to a successful rescue in the last 30 years.
While it was used at the Quecreek rescue in 2002, the seismic equipment was not used to locate the miners, but to confirm that they were still alive once a rescue hole was drilled, according to MSHA’s report on that accident.
Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continuing coverage of the Sago Mine disaster is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation. To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.