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Sago families ‘dissatisfied’ with state disaster report

BUCKHANNON — Families of the Sago Mine disaster victims drove to Buckhannon Monday, expecting to be the first to hear what state investigators have found out about the January disaster that killed 12 men.

Instead, several said they were handed a two-inch-thick binder full of papers — one per family — and given little time to read it before a press conference the state mine safety office had already arranged.

When they asked questions, family members said, state officials suggested they read the report. When they asked other questions — such as how the lightning the report blames for the explosion got into the mine — officials did not have answers, some family members said.

“The families are dissatisfied with the information presented today,” Samantha Lewis, widow of miner David Lewis, told the Gazette. “We didn’t feel we had time to review the information. We would like a chance to review it, to be more thoroughly apprised what the report says, so we will be able to ask informed questions.”

The press conference was hastily scrapped. Gov. Joe Manchin was at the meeting — he was hearing the report for the first time, like the families, spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said — and he told mine safety officials to put together a presentation for the families to explain the findings, and not to release the report to the public until that happened. Families were told it would take a week.

But minutes later, family members discovered that the mine safety office had meanwhile posted the report on its Web site, and it was already all over the news.

That, too, was news to Manchin, Ramsburg said.

“Neither one of us knew it was on the Web site,” she said. “We found out when we were traveling back to Charleston.”

Ramsburg said the mine safety office’s computer people put the report up as a test, to make sure it would work later in the afternoon when it was supposed to be available on the Web. Nobody was officially notified of the report except West Virginia’s congressional delegation, she said.

“In no way was any formal notification sent out to media” from the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training that the report was on the Web, she said. “As I understand it.”

Officials from the state mine safety office could not be reached by the Gazette Monday afternoon.

A month ago, when state officials released their report on the Aracoma Mine fire, they presented the widows of miners Don Bragg and Ellery Hatfield with a lengthy and elaborate slide show that described the events leading to the miners’ deaths. State inspectors provided the same PowerPoint slide show to the state board of Coal Mine Health and Safety in an open meeting two weeks later.

Manchin said he had expected a PowerPoint-type presentation Monday.

“I wasn’t satisfied with the way the report was presented,” Manchin said. “I think we can do a clearer presentation. I think we can lay it out a little bit better.

“I was frustrated — I was expecting a presentation, and I didn’t see that presentation.”

Manchin said of the Sago families, “They want the same thing I want and everyone in West Virginia wants — how do we make it [coal mining] safer?”

Ramsburg said she had not been notified early Monday afternoon when the presentation will be, but family members said they were told to come back to Buckhannon for it Dec. 18.

Staff writers Ken Ward and Phil Kabler contributed to this report.

To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.


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