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Sago questions linger

BUCKHANNON — In a controversial new report, state investigators repeat a familiar list of clues about the Sago Mine disaster: eerily timed lightning strikes, weak foam block seals, and problematic emergency breathing devices.

But state officials concede that they have come nowhere near providing definitive answers about West Virginia’s worst coal-mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

“Answers to all questions associated with this tragedy may never be answered,” Ronald Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, wrote in a cover letter.

The report concluded that lightning probably caused the explosion, but that investigators have not been able to narrow the list of possible paths into the mine.

Investigators believe lightning ignited more than 400,000 cubic feet of methane gas in a sealed area deep inside the Upshur County mine. The blast generated perhaps five times the force existing federal regulations required seals to be able to withstand, obliterating the foam blocks mine owner International Coal Group used in its seal construction.

State officials provided copies of the report to Sago families during a private meeting Monday morning, and were scheduled to release the document publicly during an afternoon meeting of the state’s Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety.

Portions of the report, though, were posted on the Internet as early as 2 a.m. Monday.

Some media reports indicated that the state planned to rewrite the document, but family members and their lawyers said the state actually planned to simply prepare a more elaborate briefing for the families.

Wooten did not return repeated phone calls Monday afternoon. His spokeswoman, Caryn Gresham, said that Wooten was huddling with the investigation team to figure out its next step.

In his cover letter to the mine safety board, Wooten said that the document “represents the final report of the agency on this matter.” But in the same letter, Wooten said that the investigation team was continuing to work and might supplement its report if “additional answers” are found.

At the same time, varying copies of the report were floating around.

Families were given a thick binder containing one version of the basic document, but not a series of appendices that stretched more than 300 pages.

And one of the family copies obtained by the Gazette contained sections from the main report that were not in the portion posted earlier in the day on the state’s Web site.

Sago families had already been angered last week, when the state’s lightning expert gave the Gazette an interview and when other media reports noted that the United Mine Workers and other industry officials had apparently received a briefing on the state investigation.

The controversy has boiled over just three weeks before the one-year anniversary of the Sago disaster, which claimed 12 lives and began what has become the coal industry’s most deadly year in more than a decade.

One miner, fireboss Terry Helms, was killed by the blast itself, which occurred at about 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 2. One crew of workers escaped, but 12 others became trapped. Eleven of them succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning before rescuers reached then more than 40 hours later. Only Randal McCloy Jr. survived.

The report concludes that self-contained self-rescuers “that did not perform in the manner expected” were “partly at fault” for the deaths.

Federal officials, the report said, found that all 12 SCSRs assigned to the Sago victims worked. But, the report said, the fact that oxygen-generating chemicals in most of the units were not significantly spent “is perplexing.”

State investigators said that damage to the units provided “hints that daily inspections were not conducted or at least were not done rigorously.”

Further, the state report said, SCSR training classes do not focus on “ways to maximize the duration of an SCSR once it is donned, what to do if units did not perform as expected, or the physiological effects of carbon monoxide beyond that it is hazardous.”

In a lengthy section on the rescue efforts, state investigators note that their agency’s log notes recorded at 11:45 p.m. on Jan. 3 that, “All are okay behind barricade — 12 men,” a written confirmation of the now-infamous miscommunication.

One minute later, the report said, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration’s notes — not previously released — indicated at 11:46 p.m., “12 people alive” and the ICG notes said, “All twelve at the face — barricaded at the face.”

But by 12:23 a.m., the report says, a report was received from rescue crews of “11 items,” code for dead miners. That report was confirmed at 12:30 a.m. with word of, “11 fatalities and 1 survivor behind the barricade.”

The report does not address the issue of why state officials allowed families to continue believing for several hours that all 12 trapped miners had survived.

The state’s report does provide some interesting new information on the disaster.

Perhaps most significantly, it describes for the first time in any real detail the possible effects of ICG’s “bottom mining” of a coal seam beneath the mine floor.

The report notes that “a series of ramps and drop-offs in the sealed area of the Sago mine were created during” this bottom mining as crews were backing out of the area that was eventually sealed.

Investigators said that it was not feasible for ICG to extract this lower seam during its initial mining. Doing so, the report said, would have created additional risks of roof falls. So, once the initial, or advance, mining was done and the roof supports installed, the seal was removed during retreat mining, the report said.

“Bottom mining is a fairly common-place procedure when the coal and parting thickness make it feasible and is an acceptable practice to facilitate the efficient and safe recovery of all the coal that can be recovered,” the state report said. “Bottom mining is not believed to have played a role in the initiation of the explosion, however the resulting geometry of the mine floor may have facilitated an acceleration of the ... blast propagated through the region because of the enhanced turbulence produced on the way to the seals.”

The report estimated that bottom mining “may have enhanced the explosion pressures on those seals by at least a factor of 4 — perhaps more.

“In addition, floor obstructions like gob piles, abrupt ledges, and areas of bad top may increase turbulence in an explosion, thereby increasing the combustion rate of a methane explosion,” the report said.

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


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