Gripping letter tells of Sago miners' final acts
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Trapped underground by thick, poisonous smoke, they huddled in a corner and shared emergency breathing devices. They found a sledgehammer and took turns pounding out a signal no rescuers heard. Two of them tried to make a dash to safety, but they were turned back.Dale Sparks, Associated Press
Geraldine Bruso, sister of deceased Sago miner Jerry Groves, reflects with a photo of her brother as she talks about the letter that the mine disaster's sole survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., sent to the families of the 12 men who died in the mine, at Mr. Groves' mother Wanda's residence in Weston, W.Va.
Click photo for larger image.
Then they prayed, they wrote letters to their loved ones, and they died.
All except Randal McCloy Jr., the only survivor of the Sago Mine disaster in January in Tallmansville, W.Va., who recounted the details of the ordeal in a painfully gripping letter to the families of the 12 men who died.
"I cannot begin to express my sorrow for my lost friends and my sympathy for those they left behind," Mr. McCloy said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Associated Press and released yesterday. "I cannot explain why I was spared while the others perished."
But he was able to answer some of the questions that have haunted the families who have waited almost four months while Mr. McCloy recovered from nearly dying of carbon monoxide poisoning.
He offered one clue about a possible cause of the explosion, which has not yet been determined.
Three weeks before the explosion occurred, Mr. McCloy said, he and another miner discovered a pocket of methane gas while drilling bolt holes in the mine roof. Mr. McCloy said a detection device confirmed the presence of methane, which he reported to his superiors. He said that when he returned the next day, the gas leak had been plugged with a type of glue normally used to secure mine bolts.
The 2 1/2-page letter, which was written Wednesday, also offered some comfort to the families. It told them how their loved ones did everything that they'd been trained to do in an emergency. They tried to save each other and they comforted each other. And they died peacefully, believing "if it was our time to go, then God's will would be fulfilled."
But the letter also was disturbing, especially Mr. McCloy's revelation that at least four of the emergency breathing devices the miners carried with them -- called "rescuers" -- did not function.
"There were not enough rescuers to go around," Mr. McCloy said.
Most of the families declined to comment on the letter. Some of them had hoped to keep it a secret until Tuesday, when joint federal and state hearings into the disaster will be held at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, W.Va.
However, Beckie Rogers, the sister of miner Jerry Groves, gathered with family members in Weston, W.Va., to express their gratitude.
"I would like to thank Mr. McCloy for sharing his oxygen with our brother," she told The Associated Press.
Mr. Groves' mother, Wanda Groves, was so overcome by the letter that she collapsed while reading it Wednesday and had to be hospitalized. Yesterday, after returning home, she criticized the faulty breathing devices that her son and Mr. McCloy had to share.
"If they'd both had one that would work, they might have lasted a little longer," she said.
Representatives of International Coal Group, operators of the Sago Mine, said they had seen only excerpts of Mr. McCloy's letter and preferred not to comment on it. They did, however, vow to continue working with investigators.
As for the breathing devices -- called self-contained self-rescuers -- ICG Vice President Charles Snavely said the ones carried by the Sago Miners had all been approved for use by the federal Mining Safety and Health Administration and were within the life suggested by their manufacturer, Monroeville-based CSE Corp.
The devices are designed to provide miners with an hour's supply of oxygen in the event of an accident. The Sago miners were not found by rescue workers until 41 hours after the explosion, whose cause remains unsolved.
"The federal investigators did not note any defective SCSRs and all SCSRs appeared to be in working order," Mr. Snavely said.
J. Davitt McAteer, who is heading the state of West Virginia investigation into the disaster, said all the respirators from the Sago mine had passed laboratory tests at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health laboratory in Pittsburgh.
"In the lab, they were operative," he said.
Scott Shearer, president of CSE, said federal officials are continuing tests on the self-rescuers recovered from the Sago Mine, but he is "very confident" that his product is safe.
"We work very hard to provide safety to the industry," he said.
Mr. Shearer said the units have a working life of 10 years before they need to be replaced.
Several Democratic congressmen in Washington, D.C., seized the news of Mr. McCloy's letter as an opportunity to rail against House Republican leaders, accusing them of blocking action on mine safety legislation.
U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the ranking Democratic member on the Education and Workforce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the legislation, said Mr. McCloy's letter illustrated a situation underground that "was almost a throwback to the 19th century."
"We had miners banging on walls ... using up a great deal of the oxygen they did have in trying to establish communications to the above ground world," he said, noting that legislation proposed by the West Virginia delegation this year would have required more advanced communication devices.
"There is no movement out of this Congress," Mr. Miller said. "It's just incredible, incredible inhumanity that we would deny these miners this kind of protection. ... It would be inhumane for Congress to ignore this now."
U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., also expressed anger at the Mine Safety Health Administration, which he said "has been coming forward in a very grudging manner, in a very minute fashion, to address some of these issues -- and then only address them in the most minimal fashion."
Mr. Rahall and members of the West Virginia delegation have drafted legislation that would require mine operators to provide tracking devices for miners and a mine rescue team at every mine site. It also calls for MSHA to develop standards for a "sufficient" supply of oxygen underground.
"They have the power and authority under current law to take more forceful action today," he said, "[but] the industry -- and now it appears MSHA as well -- are not going to do it unless a gun is put to their head by the government, by Congress."
The proposed bill, Mr. Rahall said, is stuck in the House subcommittee. Chairman Rep. Charlie Norwood, R-Ga., last month said he wasn't sure federal legislation was needed to address the problems at the Sago Mine.
But yesterday, Mr. Norwood said he was now "leaning toward" drafting legislation by late summer.
"I'm trying to buy some time for some of these people that are experimenting with new products that we need in these mines," Mr. Norwood said. "If we're going to tell [the industry] they've got to have something, let's tell them they've got to have something that's available, affordable, that works."
House Majority Leader John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, dismissed the Democrats' call for action as "just another political attack in an election year."
And there appears to be little support in the Senate for a bill introduced by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., which would increase penalties for mining safety violations and require wireless communication devices and a four-day supply of oxygen underground. It is co-sponsored by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va. and Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa.
The call for more legislation, however, was of little comfort to Helen Winans, the mother of miner Marshall Winans, a scoop operator who died at Sago.
"It isn't going to work," she said after hearing Mr. McCloy's letter read to her over the telephone. "You can make all the rules you want to. But if [the inspectors] don't follow through, they're not worth the paper they're written on. Money speaks louder than words, and you ought to know it.
"I'm quite a bit ticked. That was my second son that's been killed."Dale Sparks, Associated Press
Sago Mine survivor McCloy Jr.
Click photo for larger image.Dale Sparks, Associated Press
The letter from Randal McCloy Jr.
Click photo for larger image.
First Published April 28, 2006 12:00 am