Feds to Unveil Conclusions on W. Va. Sago Mine Disaster

May 10, 2007

Federal investigators will issue their report Wednesday on the Sago Mine disaster, which killed 12 West Virginia coal miners in a January 2006 explosion and prolonged entrapment underground.

Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Richard E. Stickler and lead investigator Richard Gates will brief the victims’ families and surviving miner Randal McCloy Jr. privately at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, then make the findings public.

At least one family hopes the report, 16 months in the making, provides answers that others have not.

But John Groves, whose brother Jerry died inside the mine, doesn’t expect revelations. He believes the report will again blame a lightning strike for igniting a pocket of methane gas, but fail to explain the path the electricity followed underground into the sealed chamber.

“I don’t think they can unequivocally tell us how it got there. There is no way they can say this is it, this is the spot it entered into the mine,” he said Tuesday. “I don’t think there’s any proof inside the mine for them to tell us that.”

McCloy family spokeswoman Aly Goodwin Gregg said her clients are also interested in hearing what federal investigators have to say. McCloy was carried out of the mine more than 41 hours after the explosion.

“They’re hoping for answers, but they’re just not sure they’re going to get them,” she said. “They’re glad that this is the last report that they will receive, and they’ll form their opinion afterward.”

Two previous reports – one by the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, one by mine owner International Coal Group Inc. – identified lightning as the most likely cause. A third, by a former MSHA chief and special adviser to Gov. Joe Manchin, said lightning could not be ruled out.

The United Mine Workers union, which participated in the state and federal investigation, then issued its own report, offered a dissenting viewpoint: Its experts believe the spark came from friction in the mine’s deteriorating rock roof and the metal support system used to hold it up.

The company idled the Sago Mine in March because of high production costs and low coal prices.

In December, Stickler told The Associated Press that if lightning did play a part in the blast, he wanted his investigators to explain how.

“If it was lightning, how did it get in the mine? If you don’t know that, you don’t know how to keep it out, do you?” he said at the time. “There’s questions there we need the answers to.”

Atmospheric alarms in the mine sounded at nearly the same instant as a documented lightning strike, at 6:26 a.m. on Jan. 2, 2006. But the United Mine Workers – which was allowed to legally represent some workers at the nonunion mine – dismissed the lightning theory as “so remote as to be practically impossible.”

The UMW argued that unlike other coal mine blasts linked to lightning, there was no metal conduit at Sago that could have carried the charge for two miles.

Groves said circumstantial evidence is not good enough.

“Undoubtedly, everything does point to lightning,” he said. “But there are people who have been in prison for 20 years and everything pointed to the fact that they did the crime, and then it turns out they’re innocent.”

Groves said he will be “surprised and ecstatic” if MSHA could pinpoint the specifics of the disaster “because they’d know a way to prevent it from happening again.”

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