May 3, 2006

Rescuer apologizes for confusion over dead miners

By Jon Hurdle

BUCKHANNON, West Virginia (Reuters) - A rescue worker who
found the bodies of 12 miners in the Sago mine apologized to
their families on Wednesday for erroneous initial reports that
the miners were alive.

A miscommunication led to word spreading that the miners
were found alive, sparking jubilation among families gathered
in a church near the mine. Nearly three hours later joy turned
to despair when officials announced there was only one survivor
among 13 miners trapped by a January 2 explosion.

Rescuer William Tucker, among the first to discover the
miners deep inside the Sago mine, said he initially told other
rescuers that some of the miners were alive.

"I started screaming for help, 'They're over here, they're
over here.' I think I said they are alive; that may have been
part of the communication error. In my mind I knew most of them
were dead," Tucker said on the second day of a public hearing
on the disaster.

Ronald Hixson, an official with the federal Mine Safety and
Health Administration, described a long chain of communication
between rescuers inside the Sago mine and the command center on
the surface, and said walkie-talkies may not have worked
properly because of the distances involved and low batteries.

"We apologize for any of the problems or heartache our
miscommunication caused," Hixson said. "It was not meant to
be," he said, choking up with emotion.

The miners were trapped after an explosion in the mine at
about 6:30 a.m. Their bodies were discovered 41 hours later.


International Coal Group, the mine owner, has said it
believes the blast was caused by a lightning bolt during a
heavy thunderstorm that ignited gases inside the mine.

Tucker took responsibility for the communication error.

He said rescuers discovered Randal McCloy, the sole
survivor, was still alive and gave him an air pack to try to
keep him breathing although his mouth was already "clenched
real tight."

In assessing the others -- who had barricaded themselves
behind a curtain to try and shield themselves from deadly
carbon monoxide -- Tucker said he heard a sound that led him to
believe McCloy might not be the only survivor.

"I heard a slight sound of air, and at one point I hollered
that we had another," Tucker said. "Seconds later I realized I
was wrong and that miner was dead also. I hollered over the
radio that we only have one."

Anne Meredith, daughter of deceased miner James Bennett,
asked why the dead miners had not been brought out of the mine
on stretchers, as McCloy was.

"Why did you not treat these miners with respect?" Meredith
asked Kevin Stricklin, district manager for MSHA who played a
lead role in the rescue. "Instead you guys piled them on a
scoop and they were brought to the surface. Why could you not
have brought our loved ones out on a stretcher?"

Stricklin replied, "We thought we were giving them the most
respect we could under the circumstances. The rescue teams had
been working 36 hours. We didn't think they had the ability to
bring them out on stretcher."

The hearing has brought together state and federal mine
safety officials, state legislators, the mine owner and
families of the victims, in an effort to identify causes of the
disaster, the deadliest in West Virginia since 1968 when 78
miners were killed in an explosion in Farmington.

A final report on the disaster is scheduled to be published
by July 1 but may not be ready by the target date, said Davitt
McAteer, chairman of the hearing and special advisor to West
Virginia Governor Joe Manchin.