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Judge approves Sago lawsuit settlements

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A Kanawha County judge on Wednesday approved wrongful death lawsuit settlements between mine owners and the families of six of the coal miners who died in the Sago Mine Disaster.

Circuit Judge Charles King also signed off on several other settlements of suits brought by family members other than those who were administering the estates of the disaster victims.

"That concludes this entire litigation, as I understand it, resulting from this terribly unfortunate tragedy," King said after approving the settlements.

Terms of the deals were kept confidential, and the settlements come as the sixth anniversary approaches of the mine explosion that killed 12 workers and started a series of five major U.S. mining accidents in West Virginia, Kentucky and Utah.

Morgantown lawyer Al Karlin said that no settlement could truly end the matter for clients like his -- the families of Sago miners Tom Anderson, Jesse Jones, Jerry Groves and George "Junior" Hamner.

"This is a somber moment," Karlin said. "When a case like this is settled, it's too easy to forget what it was all about. No settlement can really resolve what the families are left with -- the holes in their lives."

Karlin said the families had hoped Sago would lead to mine safety reforms that would protect other coal miners, but spent the last few years watching other families suffer at the Aracoma and Upper Big Branch mines in West Virginia, the Darby Mine in Kentucky and the Crandall Canyon operation in Utah.

"In some ways [safety conditions] are better today, but in some ways we're still facing the problems of safety in coal mines," Karlin added.

Steve Annand, a lawyer for other families, said the litigation "has been a long, hard course" for the families, but that he hopes the settlements bring "some closure."

Other families who resolved cases Wednesday against mine operator Wolf Run Mining were those of miners Jackie Weaver and Marshall Winans.

More than a dozen family members filled one side of King's courtroom, as lawyers asked for court approval, carefully avoiding mentioning publicly the amounts of the confidential deals.

Previous wrongful death settlements were reached by the families of miners James Bennett, Marty Bennett, Terry Helms, David Lewis and Fred Ware. The family of one miner who died, Martin Toler, did not sue. Sago survivor Randal McCloy Jr. also previously settled a suit over his injuries.

At the time of the disaster, the Sago Mine was owned by International Coal Group. Earlier this year, ICG was purchased by St. Louis-based Arch Coal.

At about 6:30 a.m. on Jan. 2, 2006, an explosion ripped through the Sago Mine south of Buckhannon. One miner, fireboss Terry Helms, died soon after the blast from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Surrounded by smoke and toxic fumes, 12 other miners took shelter behind a makeshift barricade. Eleven of them died before rescuers reached them more than 40 hours later. Only McCloy survived. Before the deaths last year of 29 miners at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, Sago was the worst coal-mining disaster in West Virginia in nearly 40 years.

Federal investigators pointed to a lightning strike as the "most likely" ignition source for the blast, which occurred inside a sealed area of the Sago Mine.

The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded that stronger seals, proper methane monitoring and the removal of a pump cable from the sealed area where the explosion occurred could have prevented the disaster. MSHA did not cite ICG or its subsidiary, Wolf Run, with any violations contributing to the accident.

Lawsuits filed by the families had cited a long string of safety violations prior to the disaster, the lack of required anti-lightning equipment, lax methane monitoring and poor construction of the mine seals.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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