W.Va. Probe Finds Lightning Set Off Sago Mine Explosion

December 8, 2006

After nearly a year of studying the Sago Mine disaster, West Virginia state investigators have concluded that an unusually powerful lightning strike somehow ignited methane gas underground, a United Mine Workers official says.

Lightning is the only possible cause investigators could not rule out, and it will be the focus of the report they plan to release publicly on Monday, said Dennis O’Dell, the labor union’s health and safety director.

UMW officials, who helped with the investigation, have already been briefed on the findings, O’Dell told The Associated Press.

Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, could not immediately be reached for comment. But others familiar with the report confirmed the state has ruled out rock falls and other possible causes.

Gov. Joe Manchin plans to meet privately Monday with the families of the 12 miners who died in the Jan. 2 blast and prolonged entrapment.

The mine’s owner, International Coal Group Inc., has argued since March that lightning was to blame. The company declined comment Thursday but has previously said it was confident the state would reach a similar conclusion.

A federal report on the accident is not expected until early next year.

ICG critics have tried to dismiss the lightning theory, arguing it would label the accident an act of God and make it more difficult for ICG to be held legally liable.

But questions remain. An interim report issued by Manchin’s special adviser, former federal Mine Safety and Health Administration chief J. Davitt McAteer, pondered whether ICG took all required steps to try to protect the mine. He said ICG failed to properly ground the electrical systems and install arrestors at some locations as required by law.

“The question of whether these failures directly contributed to the explosion and subsequent loss of life remains to be resolved,” he wrote, “but there is no question that they represent serious failures of mine management.”

All but two families of the Sago victims have sued ICG, alleging negligence in maintaining a safe workplace and infliction of emotional distress.

Al Karlin, a Morgantown attorney who represents some of the families, would not predict how they will react to the report. Nor would he say what impact it might have on the lawsuits.

“Any conclusions right now are premature,” he said. “From what we know, a whole lot more is going to come out before this is all over.”

Several families contacted by The Associated Press either declined comment or did not immediately respond.

The explosion occurred at 6:26 a.m. Jan. 2 in a mined-out section sealed with a block wall.

Mine dispatcher William Chisolm was talking with superintendent Jeff Toler at the time and told investigators he instinctively threw down the phone when it popped in his ear. At the same time, the belt lines shut down and atmospheric alarms in the mine began sounding.

Some 60 miles away, a U.S. Geologic Survey station confirmed a seismic event.

Underground, fleeing miners described a brief but roaring wind filled with choking dust and rock _ a force so strong it blew their hard hats off their heads.

One miner, fireboss Terry Helms, died in the blast. Twelve others were trapped for more than 40 hours, and all but one _ Randal McCloy Jr. _ died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Although rare, lightning strikes have been known to cause underground explosions at some of the nation’s 650 underground coal mines.

In a report issued in 2001, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health blamed lightning for seven explosions that occurred in sealed, abandoned areas. In most cases, the seals on worked-out sections were destroyed, and in all, some metallic conduit was later identified.

Chris Hamilton, a lobbyist with the West Virginia Coal Association, said mines are already considering ways to deal with lightning strikes, short of stopping production and evacuating.

Among them are pumping nitrogen into sealed areas to render the gases inert, new methods and materials for seals, and leaving worked-out areas unsealed, he said. Because mines have different depths and configurations, they need different ways to respond to the threat, he said.

The state’s report, meanwhile, also is expected to focus on the air packs the doomed crew had been assigned.

McCloy has said four of his co-workers could not get theirs to work, thwarting their ability to escape in thick smoke through a jumble of damaged mine equipment. They were forced to erect a makeshift barricade 260 feet below the surface.

In the 11 months since, state and federal mining regulators have adopted new rules and laws, including a requirement that mine operators keep stockpiles of air packs underground to supplement the devices miners wear.

Since Sago, the U.S. coal mining industry has endured its deadliest year since 1995, when 47 miners were killed on the job.

This year, 46 miners have died in a string of accidents, including 23 in West Virginia.

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