- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 3, 2006

BUCKHANNON, W.Va., (AP) — A state mining inspector’s shouts during the Sago Mine disaster might have been what led the relatives of 12 missing miners to think they had all been found alive, he told a public hearing Wednesday.

“I don’t recall the exact words I used,” said Bill Tucker, an assistant inspector at large for the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training. “I was just screaming out for help.

“I think I may have said, ‘They’re alive.’”

The miners’ families had been waiting in a nearby church and erupted into cheers as word spread — someone may have overheard Mr. Tucker’s shouts and passed it along — that all 12 trapped miners were alive. Even Gov. Joe Manchin III declared it a miracle.

Three hours later, the celebration dissolved in misery as the families learned that only one miner, Randal McCloy Jr., had survived. The body of a 13th miner had been found earlier in the evening.

Mr. Tucker was with the rescue team that discovered the bodies barricaded behind a curtain more than two miles inside the mine in early January. The men had been there for about 41 hours amid dangerous gases, and Mr. McCloy said later that at least four of their air packs failed.

At first, Mr. Tucker said, he thought they had a rescue. Only after he started checking the miners’ conditions did he realize that only Mr. McCloy still had a pulse.

“I picked up the radio, and I hollered over the radio that we only have one [alive],” Mr. Tucker testified as a hearing into the Sago Mine explosion and its aftermath entered its second day.

Later yesterday, a consultant hired by the mine owner said a lightning strike a mile from the mouth of the mine probably sent an electrical pulse along a power line, ultimately igniting methane gas and causing the explosion.

The electrical charge apparently flowed from a tree to a power line 300 feet away and into the mine, said Thomas Novak, a Virginia Tech mining professor hired by International Coal Group Inc. to investigate the blast. “Lightning doesn’t have to strike something directly” to cause an explosion, Mr. Novak said, but he agreed that his preliminary findings could be characterized as a “hypothesis.”

Mr. Novak said he needs to examine more data, and ICG said it plans to hire another expert witness to assess the mine geology for the possibility of metal in the rock walls, roof and floor of the sealed area.

Another rescue crew member, Ron Hixson, of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, apologized yesterday to the miner’ families for “the problems and heartache the miscommunication caused.”

“That was not meant to be,” Mr. Hixson said, fighting back tears as the 50 or so family members attending the hearing applauded.

The hearing was to last two days but has been extended into today.

Though some families of the fallen miners see ICG’s theory as plausible, many have questioned it, and one asked Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine Workers of America, to represent them during the interrogation that followed Mr. Novak’s presentation.

ICG’s theory that lightning caused the explosion is an attempt to influence public opinion before the state and the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration complete their investigations, said Sarah Jane Bailey. Her father, George Hamner, died in the mine.

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