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Mine being vented

TALLMANSVILLE — As the victims’ families made plans for the first of the funerals, officials worked Friday to purge the Sago Mine of poisonous gases and allow investigators to determine what sparked the blast and how the miners spent their final hours.

Workers began drilling three ventilation holes into the mine. But International Coal Group Inc. chief executive Ben Hatfield said it could be days before the first investigators could go in.

“There are so many things we don’t know about what went wrong,” Hatfield said. “We don’t want to put any more people at risk until we know answers.”

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration appointed an eight-person team to investigate Monday’s blast that killed one miner immediately and left 12 others trapped more than two miles inside. Only one miner was alive when they were found nearly 42 hours later, huddled together behind a plastic curtain erected to keep out deadly carbon monoxide.

Investigators said they are looking into all possibilities, including suspicions that lightning ignited naturally occurring methane gas or coal dust. Even before the blast, those were areas of concern at the mine, which had been cited for violations in 2005 regarding the ventilation plan to control dust and explosive gases.

The accident took place after the mine had been closed for the holiday weekend; the explosion was believed to have originated in an unused section of the mine.

Mine safety experts said gas can build up in a mine after just one day of idled operations, especially in the winter, when the barometric pressure drops. Also, the metal casings of abandoned natural gas wells above a mine can conduct an electrical current into the ground.

“If this is, in fact, a strike of lightning onto a well, gas or oil, that sits above an abandoned section of the workings, that well should have had a substantial barrier to avoid this,” said West Virginia native Davitt McAteer, who oversaw MSHA during the Clinton administration. “We’ve had lightning strikes cause accidents in mines, and they’re very disconcerting because they do just what this did. They go down and blow the seals out.”

The sole survivor’s recollections could prove crucial to the investigation. But 26-year-old Randal McCloy Jr. is believed to have brain damage from oxygen deprivation and remains in a medically induced coma at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh.

In hopes of jogging McCloy back to consciousness, his wife, Anna, said she planned to play the music of one his favorite bands, Metallica. She also got him his regular brand of deodorant and soap, believing the familiar smells will help him come around.

And what does she plan to say to him if he does?

“I’ll probably be speechless,” she said. “I know I’m going to squeeze him and tell him I love him and how much I’m proud of him.”

She said she has told their children —Randal III, 4, and Isabel, 14 months — only that “daddy worked very long hours and that he had to rest.”

“And my little boy says, ‘That’s OK, because my daddy’s going to get better for me.”

The inquiry also will look at the miscommunication from rescuers inside the mine that led anxious relatives to believe for three hours that their loved ones had miraculously survived. That period of confusion was reflected in 911 tapes released Friday, in which emergency workers are heard discussing the false report.

In what officials said appeared to be chatter between two ambulances, one emergency worker said: “You might as well just stand still right where you’re at, Gary. They did find them, and they’re all OK, I guess, so, I think we might be transporting them. I’m not exactly sure, but we’re stuck right here.”

When asked how many to prepare for, the other said: “Twelve, and they’re bringing them out.”

In other developments, autopsies were completed and the bodies of the miners were returned to the families. State law prohibits the public release of autopsy results. Asked about speculation among the families that 11 of the trapped miners died from carbon monoxide, West Virginia Health Department spokesman John Law said: “I don’t think it will be a great surprise.”

The first funerals for the fallen miners were being planned Friday, with at least three services planned for Sunday.

The Sago Baptist Church, which was a gathering place for families during the vigil for the trapped miners, has become a shrine, with flowers filling the tiny altar.

They include a vase with 13 red roses, one for each of the miners’ families, and a basket of peach-colored roses and daisies from a mining shift in Alberta, Canada. To the right of the altar is a large spray of snapdragons, carnations and chrysanthemums from a woman in Galt, Calif.

“I want you to know that there are thousands, probably millions of people who mourn with you and pray for you,” said an accompanying letter from Jennifer Coumbs. “People you have never met are at this time asking the Lord to be with you to strengthen you and hold you in His hands.”


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