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Sago families

WHAT happened? From the early hours of the Sago disaster, Gov. Joe Manchin distinguished himself as a compassionate leader. He sat with suffering families and promised them that their questions would be answered and they would be involved in the progress of the investigation.

But when it came time to release the report, the governor’s appointee botched it. Families assembled to hear what state investigators had found merely were handed a thick report and told to read it. They were not given an opportunity to ask questions. Even Manchin said he was disappointed and that he had expected a more detailed briefing for relatives, similar to one provided for families of the miners killed in the Aracoma Mine fire.

So state officials, led by Ron Wooten of the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training, tried again. With several versions of the report circulating, they convened another meeting. By this time, family members had had a chance to digest the hundreds of pages and were ready with questions. Again, Wooten’s office seemed oblivious to needs of survivors. This time, state officials stuck to a rigid recitation of the contents of the report before answering any questions. When they did take questions hours later, they limited each person to a single question at a time. Some relatives, frustrated again, left.

In such a complicated matter, it is reasonable that investigators may not be able to answer all questions. Some answers may simply be unknown. It is even reasonable to have conflicting answers. But the Sago report provided by Wooten’s office seems to contradict itself unintentionally, without acknowledging the reasons for these contradictions. Lightning probably caused the explosion, the report says. Problems with the mine’s electrical system had nothing to do with it, investigators conclude in one section. In another, it says there is no evidence of damage to the power systems that can be attributed to a lightning strike.

But elsewhere, the report describes possible lightning damage to two power poles, a poplar tree and underground poles. Another section says lightning could not have found an uninterrupted path over metallic conductors all the way to the area of the explosion. Still other sections say lightning could have jumped gaps in a wire mesh roof and that the high clay content of the mine roof would have offered little resistance to lightning.

The confused report reads as if its writers weren’t sure what they wanted to say. The obvious discomfort state officials showed toward candid questions also suggests that they were not comfortable with their own report. Gov. Manchin’s commendable promise of openness toward the grieving families seems to have gotten derailed in confusion.

Meanwhile, a federal follow-up investigation also is in progress. The new national mine safety chief, West Virginia native Richard Stickler, promised two weeks ago that it will be exhaustive and provide survivors with the clearest information that possibly can be obtained. We hope the U.S. probe heals the unfortunate pain caused by the state effort.


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