- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

From combined dispatches

TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. — A top coal company official expressed regret yesterday that the families of the 12 dead miners were mistakenly led to think for three hours that their loved ones were alive.

“In the process of being cautious, we allowed the jubilation to go on longer than it should have,” said Ben Hatfield, chief executive of mine owner International Coal Group Inc. (ICG).

Anna Casto, whose cousin died in the mine, was among those who expressed anger at the miscommunication.

“We had a miracle, and it was taken away from us,” she told CNN.

Mr. Hatfield said the initial mistake resulted from a miscommunication among the rescue crews. Another ICG executive, Vice President Gene Kitts, suggested that the misunderstanding resulted because the rescuers who reached the victims in the mine were wearing full-face oxygen masks and used radios to report their findings to their base.

Mr. Hatfield said that overnight, after it appeared that the miners might not be alive after all, the company sent word to family members gathered at a nearby church that the initial report of 12 survivors might have been wrong. But he said the message never got to family members.

When the bad news was delivered to the families about three hours after the initial report, “there was no apology. There was no nothing. It was immediately out the door,” said Nick Helms, son of miner Terry Helms, one of the dead.

Chaos broke out in the church and a fight started. About a dozen state troopers and a SWAT team were positioned along the road near the church because police were concerned about violence. Witnesses said one man had to be wrestled to the ground when he lunged for mining officials.

“I feel that we were lied to all along,” said Anne Meredith, whose father died. She said she planned to sue ICG.

The sole surviving miner, Randal McCloy Jr., was sedated and in critical condition last night, suffering from dehydration, a collapsed lung, and heart, liver and kidney problems.

The last of the 12 bodies were taken out of the mine at midmorning yesterday.

According to officials, 12 of the 13 coal miners trapped in the explosion in the Sago Mine on Monday morning apparently survived the blast.

One miner who likely was killed by the force of the blast was found at least 700 feet from the others, Mr. Hatfield and other officials said.

The other men apparently were deeper into the mine at the time and survived the blast. But the mine company would not say exactly how they died or how long they survived, citing family privacy.

Mr. McCloy and the 11 others were found at the deepest point of the mine, about 2 miles from the entrance, behind a fibrous plastic cloth stretched across an area about 20 feet wide to keep out deadly carbon monoxide gas, Mr. Hatfield said. Such curtains are used in mines to direct air flow, and miners are trained to use them in an emergency.

Each of the miners in the barricaded area also had a breathing apparatus that purifies the air and had been able to use it, according to mine officials.

Doctors said Mr. McCloy’s youth may have helped him survive. At 26, he was the youngest in the group.

Mr. McCloy showed no sign of carbon monoxide poisoning but may have suffered a brain injury because of lack of oxygen after being trapped in the mine for more than 42 hours, a doctor said.

“There is an opportunity for recovery,” Dr. Lawrence Roberts of West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital said last night on CNN’s “Larry King Live.”

Charles Green, Mr. McCloy’s father-in-law, told ABC that when he found out his son-in law was the only survivor, “I was still devastated. My whole family’s heart goes out to them other families.”

Late last night, about 200 people gathered outside the Sago Baptist Church for a candlelight vigil to remember the miners. One by one, people at the service spoke about the miners. Many were friends of the victims, fellow coal miners or rescuers.

Meanwhile, state and federal officials said they were starting investigations into the cause of the blast.

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