Sago miners’ kin express grief, anger
By Jon Hurdle
BUCKHANNON, West Virginia (Reuters) – Families of the 12
coal miners who died in the Sago Mine disaster expressed their
grief and anger, and mine officials speculated about why safety
equipment failed to save them 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 of carbon monoxide poisoning 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
Twelve 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 sole survivor, 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 most of them.
Mine owner International Coal Group Inc. (ICG) said in a
statement last week it had found no evidence the air packs
John Stemple, ICG’s assistant director of safety, told the
hearing on Tuesday that the air packs may have failed the
trapped miners because they had been “overbreathing.”
“You have to slow your breathing right down. It’s not a
unit that provides pressure,” he said.
ICG president Ben Hatfield said the air pack technology had
not been improved in at least a decade and that he believed it
would be now as a result of the Sago disaster.
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.