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Rescue attempt got close to miners

BUCKHANNON - If the trapped Sago miners' co-workers could have traveled as little as 500 yards farther into the mine, they would have found the 13 men within the hour after the explosion, according to information released by mine owner International Coal Group Wednesday.

Twelve of the miners died before a federal rescue operation reached them more than 41 hours later.

The impromptu rescue effort made it nine-tenths of the way from the entrance to where the miners were found, before thick smoke forced them to turn back. The miners' would-be rescuers included relatives who also worked at the mine - "brothers on opposite sides of the smoke," ICG President Ben Hatfield said. Victim Jesse Jones' brother Owen was working on a different section of the mine, and his group managed to escape.

Hatfield confirmed that the trapped miners did try to escape on their own, but the rail car that carries the miners in and out of the mine two miles underground "clearly impacted some sort of blockage, probably a piece of debris in the middle of the track." He said the miners had no way of knowing whether they could walk out safely, so they obeyed their training and tried to barricade themselves against the carbon monoxide that eventually killed all but 26-year-old Randal McCloy, who was still in a coma at a Morgantown hospital Wednesday evening.

ICG 'will not attempt to explain

or defend' mine's earlier safety record

In what company officials said will be their last public briefing on the disaster until the federal investigation is complete, Hatfield said he did not know if New York billionaire Wilbur L. Ross Jr. was aware of ongoing safety problems at the Sago Mine.

"I don't have a clue whether Mr. Ross knew or didn't know," Hatfield said during a press conference at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

"Mr. Ross hires different people to manage different companies," Hatfield said. "He's not a coal miner or a coal mine manager."

Ross has controlled the company that owns the Sago Mine - Anker Coal Group Inc. - since at least early 2001, according to court records, corporate disclosures and other public documents.

The formation of ICG in 2004, and its subsequent purchase of Anker, was just the final step in a six-year effort by Ross to acquire the Morgantown-based coal company.

Ross began buying up Anker Coal Group in 1999, with the purchase of a one-fifth stake in the company, according to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filings. By 2001, Ross had acquired 47 percent of the company, making him by far the largest shareholder, SEC records show.

But Hatfield said that ICG would "not attempt to explain or defend" any safety problems "prior to the time" ICG formally took over the mine.

ICG announced its plans to buy Anker in March 2005, and finalized the deal on Nov. 18.

Hatfield said that a management agreement was signed in June, and he conceded that "the majority" of the more than 200 citations issued by federal mine inspectors came in the second half of the year.

"A number of the violations have been challenged by the company, and many of them remain open to challenge," Hatfield said.

Also, Hatfield blamed the jump in citations on a "significant increase in enforcement" at the mine by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. During the six months before the explosion, Hatfield said, MSHA inspectors were at the Sago Mine almost every day.

Hatfield said that ICG met with MSHA and asked to become part of an agency "incident reduction program," the first coal operator to voluntarily seek to join.

"Our focus on mine safety is readily apparent," Hatfield said.

'Chaos' delayed call for help;

ICG may upgrade wireless, oxygen at other mines

Hatfield went on to describe the "chaos and confusion" that preceded ICG's attempts to reach the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

According to ICG, more than an hour passed after the explosion before mine managers started calling state and federal mine officials.

"What was going on in the interim was sheer chaos and confusion," Hatfield said. "As soon as they got word that some kind of disruption had occurred ... four brave men immediately plowed into the mine.

"They made it all the way to the second left turnoff" where the miners were barricaded before smoke forced them to retreat, Hatfield said. That was between 7 and 7:15 a.m., he said.

The company's preliminary timeline states that mine managers started calling state and federal mine officials at 7:40 a.m. "We called the district office of MSHA and there we got a recording," telling the caller to call certain cell phone numbers. "It wasn't a matter of just making one call."

The first mine rescue team was called at 8:04 a.m., an hour and a half after the explosion, according to ICG.

The trapped crew had a walkie-talkie, but it could not be reached, Hatfield said.

He touched briefly on the possibility that ICG may upgrade communication devices for miners at its other mines. In an earlier interview, Hatfield had said that if the trapped miners had had wireless communication devices, they could have been told of a safe way to get out.

It's "possible" that wireless communications and "longer-duration breathing apparatus" - standard equipment includes an hour's worth of oxygen - "could be incorporated" at ICG's mines, he said.

Of the 145 miners who work at Sago, about 52 have been given jobs at ICG's Sycamore No. 2 mine near Clarksburg and about 52 at ICG's Sentinel mine near Philippi, Hatfield said.

"The balance of them are going to be used in the Sago Mine rehabilitation," building ventilation structures and the like to aid investigators, Hatfield said.

ICG officials met with the miners Saturday "in this very room," Hatfield said during the briefing. "It was remarkable ... We took well over an hour just for them to ask questions about the accident."

Hatfield said that "to a man," the miners are "supportive of what this company has done."

The mine should be sufficiently ventilated of toxic gases for investigators to enter within four to seven days, Hatfield said.

To contact staff writers Tara Tuckwiller or Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-5189 or 348-1702.


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