May 2, 2006

Sago miners’ kin express grief, anger at hearing

By Jon Hurdle

BUCKHANNON, West Virginia  - Families of the 12 coal miners who died in the Sago Mine disaster expressed their grief and anger in emotional speeches at a public hearing on Tuesday.

The widows, children and other relatives of the victims recalled the miners and called on mine managers, regulators and legislators to determine the causes of the disaster and bolster safety measures so that such an incident is never repeated.

"This has been and continues to be one of the most painful things we have ever endured," said Peggy Cohen, daughter of deceased miner Fred Ware Jr. "We have difficulty eating and sleeping. We sit and cry daily. We want the honest truth."

Twelve miners died and one was left brain damaged in an explosion at the mine on January 2 this year in the deadliest mining disaster in West Virginia since 1968 when 78 miners were killed in an explosion in Farmington.

Thirteen family members -- many of them wearing T shirts with Christian crosses and the names of the dead on the back -- took turns eulogizing the miners who died underground.

With photos of the 12 miners on the wall behind the podium of a gymnasium at West Virginia Wesleyan College, tearful relatives spoke more in sorrow than anger but also accused mine officials of mismanaging the rescue.

The Sago miners who died were initially reported to have been found alive, sparking jubilation among families gathered in a church near the mine. But three hours later mine officials announced there had been a miscommunication between the rescuers underground and their colleagues on the surface, and that 12 miners had in fact been found dead.

The surviving miner, 27-year-old Randal McCloy, said in a letter to victims' families last week that some of the air packs provided to the trapped miners did not work as they huddled 260 feet underground and tried not to breathe the carbon monoxide that finally killed all the others.

International Coal Group said in a statement it had found no evidence that the air packs malfunctioned.


Virginia Moore, fiance of Terry Helms, told the hushed hall: "Without Terry there is half of my heart gone because he made it whole. Since he is gone, we are here to ask you all for the answers and hope that we may get some closure to this."

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said he understood the hearings will be painful for the families.

"We understand the very delicate nature of this investigation taking into account the heavy emotion involved," Manchin told the hearing. "It's very important to know that these brave miners have not died in vain."

Hearing chairman Davitt McAteer, former head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the victims' families have a right to expect improvements in mine safety conditions and that the Sago disaster will eventually be seen as a turning point in U.S. mine safety.

"Historically, investigations of mine disasters in the United States have never involved the families of the victims," McAteer said. "That era ends today."

McAteer told reporters before the hearing that investigators have not yet reached a conclusion on the cause of the explosion. "This isn't an easy accident to dissect," McAteer said. "I don't think anybody has the answer yet."

McAteer said an official report on the disaster may not be completed by the July 1 target date.