Friday, April 28, 2006

BUCKHANNON, W.Va. (AP) — Trapped deep below ground by poisonous gases, the Sago miners realized that at least four of their air packs did not work and they were forced to share the devices as they pounded away with a sledgehammer in hopes of letting rescuers know where to find them, the sole survivor said.

Then, resigned to their fate, the men recited a “sinner’s prayer,” scrawled farewell notes to their loved ones and succumbed, some as if drifting off to sleep.

“As my trapped co-workers lost consciousness one by one, the room grew still and I continued to sit and wait, unable to do much else,” Randal McCloy Jr. wrote to his co-workers’ families in a letter dated Wednesday and obtained by the Associated Press.

Mr. McCloy’s 21/2-page typed letter offered the most detailed account yet of what happened in the mine after the Jan. 2 explosion, along with criticism that the mine’s operator, International Coal Group Inc. (ICG), let them down.

The blast killed one miner and spread carbon monoxide that asphyxiated 11 other men as they waited 260 feet below ground to be rescued.

The air packs — called “rescuers” in the letter — are intended to give each miner about an hour’s worth of oxygen. But at least four of the devices did not function, Mr. McCloy said.

“There were not enough rescuers to go around,” he said. Mr. McCloy said he shared his air pack with miner Jerry Groves, and his co-workers did the same with the three other men whose devices were not functioning.

Mine owner International Coal Group Inc. said federal investigators tested the miners’ air packs — also known as self-contained self-rescue devices, or SCSRs — and found no evidence that any of them malfunctioned.

Dirk Fillpot, a spokesman with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said “MSHA is looking at whether the miners received adequate training in the use of their SCSRs.”

After the blast, the miners returned to their shuttle car in hopes of escaping along the track but had to abandon their efforts because of bad air. They then retreated, hung a curtain to keep out the poisonous gases and tried to signal their location by beating on the mine bolts and plates.

“We found a sledgehammer, and for a long time, we took turns pounding away,” Mr. McCloy wrote. “We had to take off the rescuers in order to hammer as hard as we could. This effort caused us to breathe much harder. We never heard a responsive blast or shot from the surface.”

He said the air behind the curtain grew worse, and he lay as low as possible and tried to take shallow breaths, but became lightheaded.

“Some drifted off into what appeared to be a deep sleep, and one person sitting near me collapsed and fell off his bucket, not moving. It was clear that there was nothing I could do to help him,” Mr. McCloy wrote. “The last person I remember speaking to was Jackie Weaver, who reassured me that if it was our time to go, then God’s will would be fulfilled.”

Mr. Groves’ family members said yesterday they were grateful to Mr. McCloy, both for revealing details of Mr. Groves’ final hours and for sharing his air pack.

“If they’d both had one that would work, they might have lasted a little longer,” said Mr. Groves’ mother, Wanda, who collapsed Wednesday while reading Mr. McCloy’s letter and was taken to a hospital with a minor stroke. She was released yesterday.

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