Families of miners demand answers at hearing on Sago mine explosion
Share with others:
BUCKHANNON, W.Va. -- Families of 12 coal miners who died two miles inside a West Virginia hillside angrily interrogated mining company officials yesterday, demanding to know why the Sago Mine exploded, why some emergency breathing units didn't work, why a block wall fell to the force of the blast, and what they plan to do to prevent another disaster.Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
Anne Meredith and her husband, Dan, embrace at left while listening to an audio tribute to her father, James Bennett, one of the dead in the Sago Mine accident, during hearings yesterday at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, W.Va.
Click photo for larger image.
Did lightning bolt cause Sago Mine disaster?
Families of Sago miners share grief and frustration at hearing
For more background on the accident, go to the Post-Gazette special report Breakdown at Sago Mine: Trouble and Tragedy Two Miles In
More than 100 people attended the daylong public hearing. Questions from the miners' families were sometimes emotional, sometimes angry, making the first day of the hearings part memorial, part fact-finding mission. Click image to a multimedia report from the session.
"No one reviewed the fire boss report before you sent my dad into the mine, before knowing it was safe? Is that what you're telling me?" said Peggy Cohen, whose father, Fred Ware Jr., was among those who died after a pocket of methane ignited behind a set of foam block seals Jan. 2.
That "fire boss" report -- a regular pre-shift inspection done by a supervisor called a fire boss -- was the focus of some of the sharpest questioning yesterday afternoon when family members who lost fathers, husbands and fianc?s, took over questioning of officials of International Coal Group, the mine's owner.
The fire boss on Jan. 2, Fred Jamison, said yesterday he had completed the report, which he said noted only that a pump was down. "I didn't have any violations or nothing," he said.
But, to the consternation of family members, Mr. Jamison said he'd left the report in his shirt pocket and, when he changed to go home, the report apparently went through the laundry.
At points other family members applauded in approval as two women, the widow of one miner and the daughter of another, pointedly demanded answers from ICG's president, Bennett Hatfield, the mine's foreman, Jeff Toler, the company's safety chief for West Virginia, Tyrone Coleman, and Mr. Jamison.
Mrs. Cohen's questioning bore in on Mr. Toler, the mine manager who broke down during his own testimony earlier in the day as he spoke of the disaster. Among those who died was Mr. Toler's uncle, Martin Toler.
Responding to Mrs. Cohen, Mr. Toler said the pre-shift safety report had been provided to crew foremen, but that procedures did not call for him to sign off on it before sending men into the mine.
"That's not part of your job? To make sure your mine is safe before you send people in?" Mrs. Cohen demanded.
Mr. Toler said it was not.
Yesterday's occasionally barbed questioning followed a morning session at which family members riveted the more than 100 people who attended the daylong public session in the gymnasium of West Virginia Wesleyan College here.
In the first several hours of yesterday's session, state and federal mining inspectors described a mine troubled by roof collapses and poor safety practices, but which was improving significantly in the months after ICG took over management.
"It wasn't a perfect mine, but we were working to make it a better mine than what it was," said Kevin Stricklin, MSHA district manager whose office oversaw inspections at Sago.
Mr. Stricklin said he had met five times with ICG managers to discuss safety concerns there and that citations for safety violations dropped significantly in the months leading up to the blast.
It was Mr. Stricklin who approved the installation of a set of dense concrete-and-fiber foam blocks to seal off the former Two Left section of the mine, the scene of some of repeated roof falls. Investigators believe methane accumulated behind those seals and ignited shortly after 6 a.m. Jan. 2, destroying the wall and sending a cloud of dust into the mine, trapping the miners underground where they died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The inclusion of family members as questioners in a public panel is a first in the history of mine accident investigations, according to J. Davitt McAteer, who is heading up the state of West Virginia's portion of the joint state-federal probe into Sago.
"Historically, investigations of mine disasters in the United States have never involved the families of the victims. That era ends today," Mr. McAteer said.
Questioning of federal mine officials yesterday by family members also revealed that while federal and state inspectors signed off on the seals, they were not present during their construction.
After Mr. Stricklin said inspectors had been present for only about 30 minutes during construction of the seal, Debbie Hamner, wife of killed miner George Junior Hamner, asked:
"So the seals were basically constructed without any inspector watching for 99 percent of the time?"
"That is correct," Mr. Stricklin replied.
Testimony yesterday revealed little new information about the events surrounding the Sago explosion, although the audience reactions to the pointed questioning suggested a deepening rift between the families and mine officials. At times, one of the women who took over questioning, Pam Campbell, the sister-in-law of dead miner Martin Bennett, suggested that one of the ICG officials "learn your job" when he was unable to fully answer her question.
At another point, after a member of the ICG panel said that tests showed emergency breathing apparatus tested after the disaster worked in the laboratory, contradicting a claim by sole survivor Randal McCloy Jr. that four of the devices did not work, Mrs. Campbell delivered this line:
"Are you telling me that with more than 100 years expertise among those miners, they didn't know how to use those rescuers?"
Again, applause from the families reinforced her point.
Late in the day, Mrs. Campbell questioned Mr. Hatfield, the ICG President, asking why the Sago Mine lacked its own mine rescue team.
Mr. Hatfield said the mine is now assembling such a team.
"It's a little too late for us now, Mr. Hatfield," she replied.
Mr. McAteer, a former head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said he hopes the hearings will mark the start of important changes in mine safety in the United States.
Families of the 12 men killed after a methane explosion Jan. 2 "have a right to expect that everything necessary will be done to improve mine health and safety conditions in the United States so that the Sago Mine disaster will be remembered as a turning point as well as a tragedy."
First Published May 3, 2006 12:00 am