May 3, 2006

Rescuer apologizes for Sago confusion

By Jon Hurdle

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

"We apologize for any of the problems or heartache our
miscommunication caused," rescuer Ronald Hixson said as
relatives of the victims of the January 2 mine blast looked on.
"It was not meant to be," he said, choking with emotion.

William Tucker, another rescuer, told a public hearing on
the disaster that his comments to other rescuers may have
contributed to the erroneous report.

"I started screaming for help: 'They're over here, they're
over here."' Tucker said. "I think I said that some of the
miners were alive. That may have been part of the communication
error. In my mind I knew most of them were dead."

The report that only one miner had died and 12 had survived
sparked jubilation among relatives waiting for word on the fate
of their loved ones. They were not told for about 2-1/2 hours
that 12 miners had in fact perished, and just one survived.

Mine owner International Coal Group has said it believes
the explosion was caused by a lightning strike that ignited
methane gas in a sealed-off area of the mine.

That finding was backed on Wednesday by Thomas Novak, an
engineering professor from Virginia College of Technology, who
told the hearing there was "extremely strong evidence" that an
unusually powerful lightning bolt sparked the blast.

Novak, working for ICG as a consultant on the incident,
said there is no evidence the explosion was caused by friction
from roof falls or spontaneous combustion. Novak, however, said
he could not be certain how the energy from the lightning was
transmitted to the sealed area.


Sarah Bailey, daughter of dead miner George "Junior"
Hamner, said in a statement read during the hearing that ICG
had said lightning was the cause "in an attempt to influence
public opinion."

She said Cecil Roberts, president of the United Mine
Workers union, would be representing some of the families in
their attempts to determine the cause of the disaster.

ICG President Ben Hatfield said the company's final report
on the accident may not be ready until next year. "We do not
believe we have all the answers," Hatfield said in a statement
read to the hearing in response to Bailey.

In explaining the confusion about survivors, Hixson told
about the long chain of communication between rescuers deep
inside the mine and the command center on the surface, and that
walkie-talkies may not have worked properly because of the
distances involved and low batteries.

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

McCloy said in a letter to victims' families last week that
some of the air packs did not work.

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."

The hearing brought together state and federal mine safety
officials, legislators, the mine owner and families of miners
killed in the deadliest mining disaster in West Virginia since