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Miners tried to escape, family says

TALLMANSVILLE — The men trapped inside the Sago Mine tried to bulldoze their way out in a mine car before following their training and barricading themselves behind a makeshift protective curtain, according to the family of the disaster’s sole survivor.

By the time rescue workers reached the 12 trapped miners more than 41 hours after an explosion, all but one had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. It was West Virginia’s worst coal-mining accident in nearly 40 years.

Rick McGee, the brother-in-law of survivor Randal McCloy Jr., said Tuesday that International Coal Group Inc. chief executive Ben Hatfield told the family that the miners apparently tried to use the same mechanized mine car they rode into the mine to force their way out, but debris blocked their path.

“They found footprints,’’ said McGee. The men “tried to go back out of the mine. This ain’t hearsay. This came from Hatfield’s mouth.’’

Lara Ramsburg, a spokeswoman for Gov. Joe Manchin, said Tuesday that it’s also the state’s understanding the men tried to escape.

“They couldn’t get that accomplished ... ,’’ Ramsburg said. “They then, being trained, turned around and went back to the face, where they barricaded themselves.’’

In a mine, the “face’’ is where miners are removing coal.

Hatfield did not return repeated requests for comment Tuesday about whether the miners made an escape effort. In a statement issued to The Associated Press, he said it was probable the miners believed a fire or debris from the explosion was blocking their path.

In the days since the accident, Hatfield has said it’s possible the men could have walked to a section of the mine with clean air, and then made their way out — an assertion he repeated in his statement to the AP.

In an interview with USA Today published Tuesday, Hatfield said if the trapped miners had had wireless communication devices, it would have been possible to tell them of a safe way out. The only method of communication at Sago, a wired phone, was destroyed in the blast.

Hatfield told USA Today his company would consider issuing miners radios.

In response to questions from the AP, the company declined Tuesday to say if it has made changes in safety procedures at its other mines.

The Jan. 2 explosion at the Sago mine killed one miner immediately, and the 12 others were found behind a plastic curtain they had erected to try to block the deadly carbon monoxide. McGee said Hatfield told McCloy’s family that his body was found behind the barricade, but about 40 to 50 feet away from the other miners.

“Randy was within minutes of not making it,’’ McGee said. “He was so close to being dead when they found him.’’

McCloy remains in critical condition, in a partial coma and still fighting a fever. His doctors at West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown said Tuesday that tests showed a lot of activity on both sides of McCloy’s brain.

“It is probably too early for us to tell what that means, but it is very important to us that he has a lot of brain activity,’’ said Dr. Julian Bailes.

Doctors didn’t express concern Tuesday that the 26-year-old has yet to fully awaken from his medically induced coma, saying it could be a lengthy, gradual process.

“I think we have no clear clue of the extent of his injury or the time of his recovery,’’ Bailes said.

Federal officials said Tuesday they did not know how long it would take to complete their joint investigation with the state into the disaster.

Richard Gates, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s lead investigator into the accident, said he hoped the venting at the mine, including the removal of methane gas in a section of the mine where the explosion apparently occurred, would be complete within a week. Until then, no one will be allowed inside.

While investigators will look at the unsuccessful rescue efforts and communications failures that led families of the miners to wrongly believe that 12 men had survived, Gates said “the primary focus of the investigation is to determine the root cause of the accident.’’

Also Tuesday, mourners gathered for the final two funerals. A morning service was held for 59-year-old Fred Ware at Sago Baptist Church, the small church near the mine where families gathered to await word on the fate of their loved ones.

“As I talked to his miner friends, they’d say, ‘You know, Fred was always worried about someone else getting hurt,’’’ the Rev. Wease Day said of Ware, who was buried in a flannel shirt and a camouflage cap.

The last funeral, for 50-year-old Terry Helms, followed in Masontown. Other funerals were held Sunday and Monday.

Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said Tuesday his panel will hold a hearing on mine safety. Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said Monday federal mine safety officials would be called to testify before a Senate appropriations subcommittee later this month.


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