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Report criticizes gap in Sago rescue info

An independent report released last week on the Sago Mine disaster faults mine operator International Coal Group for not telling families for nearly three hours that all but one of the miners had been found dead.

The report by Davitt McAteer, a special adviser to Gov. Joe Manchin, does not cite specific blame for the initial miscommunication that 12 Sago miners were alive.

But the 97-page report questions ICG President Ben Hatfield’s explanation of why the company did not correct that report sooner.

Also, McAteer criticizes the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration and the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training for not taking charge of communications with the families and the public about the ongoing rescue efforts. He also says that rescue leaders should have been more cautious in confirming information before allowing it to leak out.

“No one cautioned [the families] to wait for verification or further bulletins,” the report concludes. “Moreover, it appears that no one from MSHA or WVOMHST briefed the families at any time during the entire rescue operation — an appalling failure.

“In any rescue situation, the highest-ranking federal, state and company officials on site must be personally responsible to ensure that miners’ families receive timely updates of accurate and confirmed information,” the McAteer report said.

McAteer released what he called a preliminary report a little more than six months after the Jan. 2 explosion that killed 12 miners at the Sago Mine in Upshur County.

In doing so, he said that more needs to be learned about the exact path that lightning — the likely cause of the ignition — took into the underground Sago tunnels.

One miner was killed by the explosion itself, and 12 others huddled in a makeshift barricade in a smoke-filled tunnel. By the time rescuers reached them, all but one of the 12 had succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.

The miner killed by the blast, fireboss Terry Helms, was found by mine rescue teams around 5:15 p.m. Jan. 3.

Families gathered in the Sago Baptist Church continued to wait for word on the other 12 miners.

Sometime around midnight, word spread that all 12 had been found and were alive.

“... It appears that one or more ICG employees may have taken it upon themselves to provide details to the families that simply could not have originated with the rescuers underground,” the McAteer report said. “For example, several family members vividly remember a company official telling them that as soon as the miners emerged from the mine they were going to come over to the church before going to get medical treatment.”

McAteer reported that the original miscommunication may have come from confused messages that were relayed by mine rescuers through a series of radios from deep underground to the surface.

Rescuers quickly corrected that information, McAteer reported, but no one told the families.

The report notes that Hatfield later testified that the command center was told that there “appeared” to be only one survivor and that the other miners “appeared” to be deceased. McAteer reported that Hatfield’s comments were “not supported” by the testimony of rescuers “who do not appear to have had, or communicated, any ambivalence about the status of the miners.”

At the same time that ICG was saying it was not sure if the miners were alive or dead, the company had pulled rescue teams out of the mine.

“If indeed [ICG officials] were clinging to such a hope, it is all the more difficult to understand why they ordered everybody out of the mine rather than immediately sending a team back to the face of Two Left,” McAteer wrote.

McAteer reported that rescuers exited the mine around 1 a.m., but were not immediately debriefed about what they saw underground. ICG corporate safety director Tim Martin sent the company’s Viper Mine team from Illinois back in, with stethoscopes and body bags, the McAteer report says.

Hatfield later testified that an attempt was made around 1:45 a.m. to send a message to the church that there were “conflicting reports” on survivors and that the initial reports might have been “too optimistic.”

But, McAteer reported, “By 1:45 a.m., there were no ‘conflicting reports’ — none at all.

“Subsequent interviews with the rescuers by federal and state investigators confirm that none of them, as they exited the mine, had any doubt whatsoever about the condition of the miners they had left behind — nor is it remotely imaginable that any of them would have been willing to leave the Two Left section if they had believed that any of the miners were still alive,” McAteer wrote. “The only confusion at this point seems to have been in the command center.”

McAteer noted that ICG official Ty Coleman was in charge of the rescue operation for the company for the entire 40-hour effort.

“That is a long stretch of time,” McAteer said. “Fatigue may well have played a part in the command center’s confusion, and it should be noted that — as MSHA is well aware — emergency management experts routinely caution against letting managers stay on station too long, to the point where sleeplessness and exhaustion can impair judgment and decision-making.”

McAteer also criticized rescue leaders for failing to secure the command center, or organize in any way the release of information from underground.

“There appears to have been little if any control over who came and went at the command center, and little effort seems to have been made to keep critical information within its walls,” the report said. “Someone’s cell phone may have been used to get the news to the families, but that could not have happened if the news had been kept confidential until it was confirmed.”

The McAteer report is available online at www.wvgov.org/SagoMineDisasterJuly2006FINAL.pdf.

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.


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