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Congressional forum on mine safety

Deborah Hamner wants to know why her husband didn’t have the extra oxygen he needed to get out of the Sago Mine alive.

Hamner wants to know why International Coal Group did not provide miners with a rescue chamber or wireless communications equipment.

“It breaks my heart to know that there is modern technology that could have saved my husband’s life, and the Sago Mine wasn’t equipped with it,” Hamner told members of Congress Monday morning.

Hamner and her daughter testified during a Capitol Hill forum on the Sago Mine disaster.

George Junior Hamner, Debra Hamner’s husband and Sara Bailey’s father, was one of the 12 miners who died in West Virginia’s worst mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

Sara Bailey read a note her father left in his lunch pail.

“I’m still OK at 2:40 p.m.,” said Hamner’s note, dated Jan. 2.

“I don’t know what is going on between here and outside,” Hamner wrote. “We don’t hear any attempts at drilling or rescue.

“The section is full of smoke and fumes, so we can’t escape,” he wrote. “We are all alive at this time.”

Hamner’s note adds to the evidence already released that the Sago miners survived for many hours after the 6:30 a.m. explosion, and were waiting to be rescued.

Previously, a note from Sago victim Jim Bennett included a timeline that showed the miners were still alive at 4:25 p.m., nearly 10 hours after the blast.

Debra Hamner said the timelines show the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration could have prevented the Sago deaths.

“Why hasn’t MSHA required mines to be equipped with rescue chambers or at least extra air supplies?” Hamner asked. “Why does Canada have better protections for their miners than we have in the United States?”

House Democrats, including West Virginia Rep. Nick J. Rahall, helped to organize Monday’s forum. Their Republican leadership had refused to hold House hearings on Sago until an official MSHA investigation is complete. The Senate, also controlled by Republicans, has held one Sago hearing and has at least one other scheduled later this week.

Amber Helms, daughter of Sago victim Terry Helms, agreed with Hamner that the U.S. coal industry needs to quickly improve its mine rescue standards.

“It’s ridiculous that I can get a computer and make a Web site in an hour, but no one can find my dad,” Helms said.

“The technology is out there,” she said. “In Australia they have tracking devices that cost as little as $20. What’s $20 to a company?

“In Canada, they have rescue chambers that have water and food,” she said. “My only question is — why don’t we?”

Delorice Bragg, whose husband Don died in a Jan. 19 fire at Massey Energy’s Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County, also testified at Monday’s hearing. Another miner, Ellery Elvis Hatfield, also died in that fire.

Bragg said she partly blames her husband’s death on an MSHA rule change that allowed coal companies to use conveyor belt tunnels to draw fresh air into underground mines.

“It added fuel to the fire,” Bragg said. “If the ventilation plan had been different, Don and Elvis perhaps could have been here to speak with you, instead of a widow.”

Hamner complained that miners’ families are being kept in the dark about the ongoing Sago disaster investigation.

Company lawyers can attend interviews with witnesses, Hamner said, but victims’ families and their lawyers are barred.

“Does this sound like a fair process?” she asked lawmakers. “Do all you can to make sure our voices are heard, that the laws are changed to protect public safety, and that the truth comes out.”

To contact staff writer Ken Ward Jr., use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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