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Sago hearing offers few answers

BUCKHANNON — Last week, widows, daughters and sons of the Sago miners sat through slick PowerPoint slide shows and lengthy physics lessons.

In a gymnasium at West Virginia Wesleyan College, Sago families peppered mine managers with tough questions, grilled government inspectors and cried again over their lost miners.

Most of all, the more than 50 family members who attended a landmark mine disaster public hearing demanded answers.

They want to know what caused the explosion that killed one miner on Jan. 2 and why 11 other workers perished before rescuers could reach them more than 40 hours later.

But after 25 hours of hearings, clear answers seemed almost as elusive as they were when hearing chairman Davitt McAteer began the proceedings with a prayer, a moment of silence and the Pledge of Allegiance.

“It has opened many windows, but not many doors,” said Amber Helms, daughter of Terry Helms, the Sago fireboss who was killed by the blast itself.

On Thursday afternoon, Helms and other family members closed three days of public hearings with emotional attacks on mine safety regulators and on the Sago Mine’s corporate owner, International Coal Group.

“ICG’s neglect and lack of concern for human life and safety has robbed me of a man who was dear to my heart and has taken my mom’s life partner from her,” said Sara Bailey, the daughter of miner George “Junior” Hamner.

Several times, ICG President Ben Hatfield testified that none of the hundreds of violations cited at Sago were listed as “contributory,” meaning they were linked directly to the explosion.

“I don’t believe we did anything wrong that resulted in the accident,” Hatfield later told reporters in a briefing after Tuesday’s session.

The next day, MSHA’s top coal mine inspector, Ray McKinney, corrected Hatfield, and suggested that contributing violations had been found — but just not issued yet by agency inspectors.

“Really, the agency’s posture will be that contributing violations will not be issued until the investigation is over,” McKinney told Hatfield. “That’s the procedure.”

On Thursday morning, officials from MSHA and the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training shared for the first time some details of their findings in that investigation. They outlined some rough preliminary conclusions, and a few clues that they are still trying to piece together.

For example, investigators believe they pinpointed the ignition’s start to a spot about 1,200 to 1,500 feet inside a sealed area, and slightly around a bend from the main set of underground tunnels.

Richard Gates, MSHA’s lead investigator, said that methane had been accumulating inside that 4 million-cubic-foot sealed area for about 22 days.

MSHA tests determined that coal seams and other geology in the sealed area liberated about 14,400 cubic feet of methane per day. By comparison, the entire Sago Mine released about 100,000 cubic feet per day. Where Gates lives, in the gassy Alabama coalfields, mines liberate 10 to 100 times more methane.

Methane was the primary fuel for the explosion, Gates said. Investigators do not yet have test results to know if coal dust played a role in increasing the explosion’s force.

Regardless, it would not take much energy or heat to ignite the methane behind the seals. Gates compared the required spark to the static electricity created “by walking across carpet on a dry day.”

Government investigators have narrowed potential ignition sources to lightning or a roof fall, Gates said.

Among the strongest evidence that points them to lightning is the discovery that the mine’s computer clock was running five minutes fast the day of the explosion, Gates said. ICG recalibrated the clock, and re-estimated the times of various events.

That puts the estimated blast time at 6:26 a.m., rather than 6:31. The change makes the explosion time — estimated by a spike in the mine’s carbon monoxide monitors — coincide even more closely with the largest of a series of lightning strikes during a heavy storm the morning of Jan. 2, Gates said.

‘Circumstantial evidence significant’

Gates also pointed to a poplar tree near the site of that lighting strike. The tree has spiral gashes on it, and appears to have been hit by the strike, Gates said.

“We find this circumstantial evidence significant and difficult to dismiss,” Gates said.

The problem is, investigators cannot fully explain how lightning that hit more than two miles from the mine portal sent an electrical charge deep underground and into the sealed area.

Family members, along with several mine safety experts who attended the hearings, found far-fetched an ICG expert’s theory that lightning jumped from the tree and snaked along power lines, a conveyor belt and wire mesh roof controls into the sealed area.

“I don’t accept his theory, and I don’t think many people in the hearing room did,” said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA official and mine safety prosecutor in Kentucky.

‘A special focus’ on oxygen devices

Hearing testimony provided some new information, and fueled continued arguments, over the rescue efforts that saved Sago miner Randal McCloy Jr., but did not move fast enough for 11 of his co-workers.

John Urosek, one of MSHA’s top experts, said that tests showed that emergency oxygen devices recovered from the victims had expended as little as 25 percent to as much as 72 percent of their air supplies.

Investigators do not know what went wrong, and want to interview McCloy as soon as possible to learn about whatever problems miners experienced trying to get the devices, called self-contained, self-rescuers, to work.

Starting this week, MSHA and the state of West Virginia are planning a program to ensure all miners nationwide are properly trained in using SCSRs. Also, the agencies plan to talk with miner operators, to ensure the devices are tested regularly as required by law.

“We’re going to take a special focus in this area,” Urosek said.

But United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts joined with Sago family members to criticize the emphasis on SCSR training. Roberts and the families say the Sago miners were properly trained, and that it is problems with the SCSRs themselves that are to blame.

Whichever is correct, mine safety experts say that fixing the problem that led — according to McCloy’s letter to the Sago families — four SCSRs to fail the trapped miners must be a priority.

“We cannot tolerate miners having a rescue device that does not work for them,” said Joe Main, a retired UMW safety director now advising lawyers for some of the Sago victims’ families.

Disagreement over rescue control

Perhaps the most touching moment of the hearing came after a panel of mine rescuers spent several hours recounting the efforts that saved McCloy, but also led to false reports that the other 11 miners had also been found alive.

The hearing also revealed a nasty disagreement between MSHA, the state and ICG about who was making decisions on when rescue teams would enter the mine, where they would go and how fast they would move.

Several ICG officials suggested that they wanted to go in sooner than the 11 hours after the blast that rescue teams actually entered. Also, ICG says its on-site managers wanted to begin the rescue at the point where an earlier team of company officials had to turn back. That spot was less than 2,000 feet from the area where the miners were found.

After the hearing, assistant MSHA chief Bob Friend also defended the agency’s handling of the rescue in a media briefing.

“It’s the company’s responsibility to run the rescue operation,” Friend said. “We’re there as a safety valve, to make sure the plan they submit to use does not put anyone in danger.”

Finding out ‘everything there is to know’

What happens now?

When Gov. Joe Manchin asked McAteer to set up the Sago public hearing, the governor asked for a report on the disaster by July 1.

McAteer said a final report probably will not be ready by that date, and any document made public at that point will be preliminary.

“Unfortunately, this is not an easy accident to dissect,” McAteer said. “We don’t have the answers. I don’t think anybody has the answers yet. But we’re trying to find them.”

A final report from MSHA could be a long way off. When 13 miners died in an Alabama mine explosion in September 2001, MSHA did not release its report until December 2002.

“We will not publish our report until we know everything there is to know about what happened at the Sago Mine,” Friend told reporters.

Late last month, ICG told its shareholders that it lost nearly $8 million during the first quarter of 2006, in part because of $11.7 million “in costs attributable” to the Sago disaster.

“We are, of course, disappointed that we did not see better results,” Hatfield said in a news release. “The Sago Mine accident was a tragedy that unexpectedly and negatively affected not only our financial performance for the quarter, but also strained our management resources as we responded to the accident and its aftermath.

“However, thanks to the resilience of our dedicated employees, the cooperation of our customers and the support of the communities in which we operate, we believe that ICG is now getting back on track with the implementation of our planned operational improvements and long-range growth plans,” Hatfield said.

Toward the end of the Sago hearing, Peggy Ware Cohen told Hatfield and Vice President Sam Kitts to look behind the stage at the portraits of her father, Fred Ware Jr., and the other 11 Sago victims.

“When you go home to your families today, think about us not going home to our families,” Cohen said. “I get to go home and look at my dad’s picture.

“You need to look at these pictures of these good men and make all of the required changes to keep men safe at all of your other mines,” Cohen said. “ICG and the other mine operators need to pay attention to mine safety, and not corporate profits.”

Staff writer Ken Ward Jr.’s continued reporting on the Sago Mine disaster and mine safety is being supported by a fellowship from the Alicia Patterson Foundation.

To contact Ward, use e-mail or call 348-1702.


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