Sago Mine rescuers sorry for 'heartache'
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William Tucker, assistant inspector-at-large for the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, is embraced by family members after his testimony at yesterday's hearings into the Sago Mine disaster. Mr. Tucker said he may have been responsible for the miscommunication during the attempted rescue of the Sago miners.
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Audio Slideshow: The Sago Mine hearings, Day Two
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BUCKHANNON, W.Va. -- Choking back tears, two of the men who traveled two miles into the earth in search of the lost Sago miners apologized for confusion that caused families to believe 12 of the 13 trapped men had survived.
The apologies came during the second day of what now appears likely to be three days of public testimony in the investigation of the Jan. 2 disaster. It focused national attention on a small village church in West Virginia, where families celebrated a miracle only to learn that confusion underground, and difficulty in passing messages in the darkened coal mine, had given them false hope.
Twelve of the 13 miners died.
"We apologize for any of the problems or the heartache that the miscommunication caused. That was not meant to be," said Ronald Hixson, 52, of Connellsville, a member of the Mine Safety and Health Administration's rescue squad.
Another rescuer, William Tucker, assistant inspector-at-large with the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, said he erroneously believed more of the miners were alive when he reached the barricade and began checking for vital signs.
"I started screaming for help, saying 'They're over here, they're over here!' " Mr. Tucker said.
"I think I said they're alive and that might have been part of the communications mistake. In my mind, I knew most of them were dead."
After rescuers determined that one of the miners, Randal McCloy, was still alive, Mr. Tucker said he sought out other miners and checked them.
"At one point I hollered that we had another one. Just seconds later I realized I was wrong, that that miner was dead also. I went on and checked every other individual," Mr. Tucker said.
He said he then picked up a handheld radio one rescue team member had set down "and I hollered over the radio that we only have one."
Confusion apparently continued, however, with members at a fresh-air base closer to the surface still under the impression other miners were alive, Mr. Tucker said.
As erroneous reports of 12 miners alive spread, celebrations broke out inside Sago Baptist Church, where family members had waited for word since the explosion. That celebration continued for several hours until Bennett Hatfield, president of International Coal Group, the mine's owner, arrived and announced that only one miner had survived.
After a lunch break yesterday, J. Davitt McAteer, the state-appointed chairman of the hearings, issued a statement expressing concern that fault for the confusion might be laid entirely on Mr. Hixson and Mr. Tucker.
"By now I think it should be clear to all of us that the miscommunication was a systemic problem, and not the result of individual error or carelessness," Mr. McAteer said.
"Clearly, it had more to do with the limitations of equipment -- communications equipment, and speaking while under apparatus -- than with the limitations of human beings."
As if to emphasize that point, one of the presenters yesterday donned the heavy oxygen equipment and full-face mask used by the rescuers to show how it could distort sound.
Testimony yesterday also showed early confusion in organizing the rescue, with mine officials struggling to get word to state and federal regulators.
John Collins, an inspector with the Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, the state agency that oversees mining, said he never heard his telephone ring but later found a message on his answering machine left by the mine's deputy safety director.
"Hey, John Collins, this is Johnny Stemple," the message said. "It is about 15 minutes till 8 Monday morning. We have got a situation at the Sago Mine with men underground we have not been able to get hold of."
Mr. Stemple added that he tried to contact another state official only to hear that his telephone was disconnected.
Families of the dead miners have repeatedly expressed frustration and anger at the hours-long delay in sending rescue crews underground to search for the men. The Sago miners remained stranded behind a makeshift cloth barricade, where they died from carbon monoxide poisoning.
Family members hugged and thanked the rescue workers, but they had harsh questions for those in charge of the rescue operation, saying they took too long.
"They [the miners] barricaded, thinking that was what they were trained to do," said Ann Meredith, daughter of Sago miner James Bennett.
"They sat there and they waited. They did what they were trained to do, and you guys didn't do what you told them. You failed these miners."
Kevin Stricklin, district manager for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said James Satterfield, one of his deputies, received notice of the situation from Mr. Stemple at approximately 8:30 a.m. Jan. 2.
MSHA officials arrived on the scene at 10:30 and received a briefing.
"I think it was shortly after that time we realized an explosion or fire had occurred," Mr. Stricklin said.
Members of the Barbour County Mine Rescue Team arrived at 11 a.m. and announced they were prepared to go underground by noon. Mr. Stricklin said that high concentrations of carbon monoxide inside the mine, and even inside a mine office where rescue teams were setting up operations, delayed the rescue.
"It was our responsibility at that time to issue an imminent danger [order]," Mr. Stricklin said.
First Published May 4, 2006 12:00 am