Video: 12 miners found dead

By Tom Costello Correspondent
NBC News
updated 1/4/2006 7:47:38 PM ET 2006-01-05T00:47:38

The bodies of the 12 miners rest here tonight, at a makeshift morgue — a blow to the families who, just 18 hours ago, thought they'd all be celebrating a miracle together.

Tuesday at 9:10 p.m. there was a hint of the tragedy to come, when International Coal Group CEO Ben Hatfield said, “Mine rescue crews have also located the the body of a miner near the belt drive at the entrance of the second left section, which is roughly 11,250 feet from the mine portal.”

It was the body of Terry Helms. That gives rescuers hope that the others got away.

Then, just before midnight, the rescue team reached the bodies. Through heavy face masks, the rescuers told the command center what they found. But the command center doesn't get the right message.

"When it was communicated to surface," says Gene Kitts, senior vice president of International Coal Group's mining services, "it came across as 12 alive."

At least 30 people heard that over a speaker in the mine office, but even though they were told to be cautious, someone called the families gathered in the church.

"Someone come running from the church screaming," one man remembers.

"Screaming they are alive and they are coming out," a woman continues. "They said if they found them alive they would ring the church bell, and they did."

All the networks went live with the report.

"And we're just told in the last few moments, that 12 are alive," Rita Cosby reported on MSNBC-TV.

"This thrill passed through here at the Sago Baptist Church, that these 12 men were alive," Fox News said.

"It is truly a remarkable moment," said CNN.

Newspapers rushed to press with the incredible development — a story that has captivated the nation looks almost certain to have a storybook ending.

But then, 45 minutes later, at 12:30 a.m., rescuers called the command center to say all but one miner were dead. Command center officials chose not to tell the families, who went on celebrating.

"In the process of being cautious," Hatfield said in a news conference Wednesday, "We allowed the jubilation to go on longer than it should have."

But at 2:50 in the morning, with the deaths confirmed, mine officials went to the church to tell the families what really happened.

"The initial report from the rescue team to the command center indicated multiple survivors, but that information proved to be a miscommunication," said Hatfield.

Only the youngest of the miners, 27-year-old Randal McCloy, somehow survived. Rescuers rushed him, unconscious and in critical condition, to the nearest hospital.

Meanwhile, the families are seething.

"It was an outsider that came and said one of the mine officials were coming up here to tell us that 12 men survived," says one family member.

Company officials voiced regret Wednesday afternoon, but some here say that’s not good enough.

"I feel sad inside, but I also feel let down about the information that was given," says family member Preston Rice.

Wednesday morning on the "Today" show, one miner took on West Virginia's governor over the mine's safety record.

"This has went on for months," he said. "And they still send men in there?"

Late Wednesday afternoon, officials began the long process of investigating what happened. 

Meanwhile, Randal McCloy is in stable condition and has squeezed his wife's hand. At a hospital news conference, she spoke, saying, "I ask everyone to just keep on praying."

The miners were found behind a makeshift barricade, a sheet of fibrous material to protect them from the bad air. And they may have realized the situation was dire; the company is strongly hinting that the miners may have left messages behind for their family members.

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