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Sago families’ frustration grows

BUCKHANNON — Families of the Sago miners were exasperated at state officials’ attempt Wednesday to make up for last week’s botched report on the January coal mine disaster.

Three victims’ families left halfway through, frustrated.

“It’s a joke,” said Peggy Hyre, miner Tom Anderson’s sister-in-law. “They’re just reading us a story.”

What families said they really wanted to do was ask questions about the written report they have now studied thoroughly. Instead, they were told they had to wait until after the state’s PowerPoint presentation — which they said simply repeated the report.

The presentation had been going on for three hours, and was nowhere near finished, when the Anderson family left at 1:30 p.m.

“They basically think we are incapable of reading our own report,” said Pam Campbell, sister-in-law of Sago victim Marty Bennett, as the Anderson family left.

“Everyone’s restless. This is stuff that we’ve already been reported ...

“This is something I guess the governor wants because of the embarrassment of last week.”

Gov. Joe Manchin left the meeting about noon to return to Charleston, telling reporters — who were kept out of the meeting — that families had been “very considerate, very attentive, listening” to the presentation so far.

“This is the report they would have liked to have seen last week,” Manchin said.

State mine safety chief Ron Wooten, reached by telephone Wednesday evening, said his agency didn’t come into the meeting with new information, but simply a more detailed and understandable presentation for the families.

“I think there were some people who wanted more answers than we can provide at this point,” he said. “We had nothing more to add at this point.”

‘Last week was a disaster

as far as I’m concerned’

Last week was the first time state mine safety officials tried to release the report.

At that meeting, “They dumped this report in our lap and told us to read it,” Campbell said. Families said they were given just minutes to review the report, and when they asked questions, officials either said they didn’t know or told them to read the report.

After families protested, Manchin promised not to release the report to the public until the state could do a better meeting with the families. Moments later, families found out the state mine safety office had already posted the report on the Internet, and it was all over the news.

“Last week was a disaster as far as I’m concerned,” Campbell said.

On Wednesday, when the question-and-answer session started, families said they were told to go around the room in alphabetical order and ask one question apiece until all questions had been asked.

Campbell said that when she tried to ask a two-part question, she was cut off.

“You know, it was really frustrating, because we were treated like little children,” she said.

Late Wednesday afternoon, Manchin said that he was not aware that some of the Sago victims’ families had left the meeting, or that any of them were unhappy with the way it was handled.

“The only thing that I can tell you is what I saw this morning,” Manchin said during an interview after a public appearance at the Capitol.

‘I think it was the

most orderly way to do it’

The governor defended the state presenting such a long presentation, and not allowing families to ask any questions before it was completed.

“I think it was the most orderly way to do it,” the governor said. “You have to get all of the information out first.”

Families continued to leave early as the meeting wore on. After seven hours, the last families emerged from the building.

“I think it went well,” said Caryn Gresham, spokeswoman for the state mine safety office. “We tried to give everyone time to ask all of their questions.”

Families with further questions will be able to talk personally with investigators, or the state will have another meeting for all of the families if they want, Gresham said.

Helen Winans, miner Marshall Winans’ mother, said she was never told Wednesday’s meeting had been rescheduled from Monday, when families were originally told it would be.

“We came over Monday morning” to the West Virginia Wesleyan College campus where she was told the meeting would be held, she said. She had to call other families to find out the real day.

Gresham said the Governor’s constituent services office handles notifications and, to her knowledge, does its best to keep families up to date.

By Wednesday night, state officials still had not officially released the Sago report to the public. Gresham said she did not know when that would happen.

‘I really don’t have

an answer to that’

The report says lightning probably ignited the methane explosion that killed one miner and slowly suffocated 11 others with deadly gases.

International Coal Group, the company that owns the mine, first blamed lightning for the disaster in March.

“It’s scary to me that the International Coal Group report and the state’s report were so much alike,” Campbell said.

Gresham told reporters, “I haven’t seen ICG’s report, so I can’t compare it with ours, so I really don’t have an answer to that.”

Families have said they don’t believe convoluted explanations of how lightning could have entered the mine.

The state report does not say how the lightning got in. Gresham said that question, along with emergency air packs the miners couldn’t get to work and the Omega block seal that failed to contain the explosion, will be investigated further.

“Whether or not we have all the answers, we need to get some things out so the legislature can look at them,” she said.

Manchin said that state officials have done a great job in getting two reports on the Sago disaster — one by the state agency and another by special investigator Davitt McAteer — out before the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 2 disaster.

Manchin noted that his family waited more than 20 years for the federal government to release a report on the Farmington Disaster. Manchin’s uncle, John Frank Gouzd, was one of 78 miners killed in a series of explosions at a Consolidation Coal Co. mine in 1968.

A federal report on the disaster was not released until March 1990, because of changes in the agencies that regulate mine safety, and the lengthy efforts — lasting a decade — to recover the bodies of 59 of the victims.

“This is all happening in a year’s time,” Manchin said.

“[The Sago families] are being given every piece of information,” he said. “This is my only direction to that agency, is to get the information to the families as quickly as possible.”

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr. contributed to this report.

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


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