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Subdued tone marks first day of hearings

BUCKHANNON — There was no glut of TV cameras — only a few were allowed. Nobody pressed family members for interviews. That wasn’t allowed, either.

Four months ago, it was live-televised chaos at the Sago Mine disaster. But when the official public hearing into the explosion began Tuesday morning at West Virginia Wesleyan College, the first statements — after several politicians had their say — came from the families of the 12 men who died after 41 hours in a mine full of deadly gases.

Speaking on a dais lined with black-draped tables, hung with black-and-white photos of the 12, they set the subdued tone that would pervade the first day of hearings.

“Show respect,” miner Jerry Groves’ daughter Shelly concluded, speaking to officials from mine owner International Coal Group and government regulators, “by answering our questions fully and completely and most of all, truthfully.”

About 75 people were seated in a section reserved for the families, right in front of the dais. Behind them and in the gymnasium’s bleachers sat another 125 people. There were ICG officials in suits, retired coal miners in jeans and neighbors from the close-knit community.

They came because they had questions, too — some of the same questions family members brought up in their first statements:

Why did government regulators not allow mine rescue teams, who testified that they were trained and ready to risk their lives to save others, to enter the mine promptly?

How can it be that federal regulators say the men’s oxygen rescuers were working, when sole surviving miner Randal McCloy Jr. says some of them weren’t?

And what about fire boss Fred Jamison’s written record of his morning safety check: Why does it seem to be missing?

“We’re really curious to see what happened,” said miner Chuck Hayes, a United Mine Workers safety committeeman from Eastern Associated Coal’s nearby Federal No. 2 mine who came to listen to the testimony.

Fellow miner Clif Tennant said he was interested to see if the investigation would lead to any safety improvements in the industry.

“I agree with one of the family members who said, ‘It didn’t have to happen,’ ” said Tennant, 43, who started mining 25 years ago. “They’ve taken coal mine safety lightly for years.”

Disaster investigators asked few questions of the witnesses. But two seats on the dais were reserved for family members, and they peppered the witnesses — especially the ICG witnesses — with questions.

Audience members, many familiar with coal mining, sometimes shook their heads over the answers.

Tim Thompson, who was a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration district manager before he retired in January, wondered why nobody mentioned that miners are erroneously still being trained to barricade themselves in a smoky mine, as the 13 Sago miners did.

“The self-contained self-rescuer was supposed to eliminate barricades,” giving miners enough oxygen to escape instead, Thompson said. “But it was never taken out of the training.”

For Esther Gearhart of Buckhannon, who took the week off from work to try to hear for herself what happened to her co-workers’ loved ones, the first day’s testimony left many questions unanswered.

And she wasn’t hearing much she hadn’t already read in the news.

“There was not really any new information,” she said.

To contact staff writer Tara Tuckwiller, use e-mail or call 348-5189.


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