Escape Blocked: Black Hole Claims 12 in W.Va. Nightmare

January 5, 2006

With their escape routes blocked by heavy smoke, most of the 13 miners caught in an explosion in Tallmansville, W. Va. did what they were trained to do: They retreated deeper into the mine and hung a curtain-like barrier to keep out toxic gases while they waited for rescuers to find them, officials said Wednesday.

All but one were found dead more than a day and a half after the blast.

The miners’ families learned of the 12 deaths during a torturous night in which they were mistakenly told at first that 12 of the men were alive. It took three hours before the families were told the truth, and their joy turned instantly to fury, with one man lunging at coal company officials.

Wednesday, the families wanted to know who got the information wrong, and to understand why state and company officials let them rejoice for more than two hours before telling them that instead of 12 survivors, they would be bringing home 12 corpses.

“We was looking for them to come through that door, man,” a red-eyed John Casto said yesterday as he stood beside a funeral home tent in back of the Sago Baptist Church, where the bells had tolled the “miracle” just hours before. “And it didn’t happen that way.”

It was the nation’s deadliest coal mining accident in more than four years.

The sole survivor, 27-year-old Randal McCloy, lay in critical condition with a collapsed lung and dehydration but no sign of brain damage or carbon monoxide poisoning after being trapped for more than 42 hours, a doctor said.

Ben Hatfield, chief executive of mine owner International Coal Group Inc., said the company did the best it could under extreme stress and exhaustion, and that officials “sincerely regret” the families were left to believe for so long that their loved ones were alive.

“In the process of being cautious, we allowed the jubilation to go on longer than it should have,” a choked-up Hatfield said.

He said the initial mistake resulted from a miscommunication among the rescue crews. Another ICG executive, vice president Gene Kitts, suggested the misunderstanding resulted because the rescuers who reached the victims were wearing full-face oxygen masks and used radios to report their findings to their base.

The last of the 12 bodies were taken out of the mine at mid-morning.

The miners were found at the deepest point of the mine, about 2 miles from the entrance, behind a fibrous plastic cloth stretched across an area about 20 feet wide to keep out deadly carbon monoxide gas, Hatfield said.

Federal and state authorities said they would investigate the cause of the blast. David Dye, who heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the investigation will include “how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners’ conditions.”

It was the nation’s worst coal mining disaster since a pair of explosions tore through a mine in Brookwood, Ala., on Sept. 23, 2001, killing 13.

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