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W.Va. families begin to say goodbye to miners

Families and friends of 12 men killed in a coal mine explosion begin saying goodbye with bowed heads and quiet prayers.
/ Source: The Associated Press

As families and friends of 12 men killed in a coal mine explosion begin saying goodbye with bowed heads and quiet prayers, the wife of the disaster’s sole survivor will try to awaken him with the sounds of his favorite heavy metal band.

The first visitations for the victims of the Sago Mine tragedy were scheduled Saturday, and six funerals were planned for Sunday.

“When we lose one, the whole nation’s miners mourn,” said Bob Friend, acting deputy assistant secretary of labor for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

An eight-person team has been appointed by the MSHA to investigate Monday’s blast. It killed one miner immediately and 11 more who were found nearly 42 hours later huddled together behind a plastic curtain erected to keep out deadly carbon monoxide.

The lone survivor found among those corpses, 26-year-old Randal McCloy Jr., remains critically ill in a medically induced coma at a Pittsburgh hospital. Doctors believe he has brain damage from severe oxygen deprivation.

In hopes of jogging McCloy back to consciousness, his wife, Anna, said she planned to play the music of one his favorite bands, Metallica. She also got him his regular brand of deodorant and soap, believing the familiar smells will help him come around.

And what does she plan to say to him if he does?

“I’ll probably be speechless. I know I’m going to squeeze him and tell him I love him and how much I’m proud of him,” she said.

She said she has only told their children — Randal III, 4, and Isabel, 14 months — that “daddy worked very long hours and that he had to rest.

“And my little boy says, ’That’s OK because my daddy’s going to get better for me.”’

Reconstructing the accident
McCloy’s recollections could be crucial to investigators, who have yet to venture back into the mine. Officials worked Friday to begin drilling three ventilation holes into the central West Virginia mine to purge it of poisonous gases, allowing investigators safely back inside to determine what sparked the blast and how the miners spent their final hours.

“There are so many things we don’t know about what went wrong,” said International Coal Group chief executive Ben Hatfield. “We don’t want to put any more people at risk until we know answers.”

Among the theories being investigated is the possibility that lightning ignited naturally occurring methane gas or coal dust. Some of the most serious citations against the mine in 2005 were for the mine’s plan to control methane and breathable dust.

The mine had been idle during the New Year’s weekend. Mine-safety experts said gas can build up in a mine after just one day of idled operations, especially in the winter, when the barometric pressure drops.

Also, the metal casings of abandoned natural gas wells above a mine can conduct an electrical current into the ground.

“If this is in fact a strike of lightning onto a well, gas or oil, that sits above an abandoned section of the workings, that well should have had a substantial barrier to avoid this,” said J. Davitt McAteer, who oversaw MSHA during the Clinton administration.

Lightning a culprit before
A federal report in 2001 documented at least seven instances in the 1990s alone of methane or coal dust being ignited by lightning, three of those in one mine in Alabama.

MSHA’s Friend said when the mine is safe to enter, the team will examine every aspect of it, including its physical structures and all equipment. The team will also interview dozens of people, including the approximately 13 miners who escaped.

The probe will also look at the miscommunication from rescuers inside the mine that led anxious relatives to believe for three hours that their loved ones had miraculously survived. That period of confusion was reflected in 911 tapes, in which emergency workers were heard discussing the false report.

In what officials said appeared to be chatter between two ambulances, one emergency worker said: “You might as well just stand still right where you’re at, Gary. They did find them, and they’re all OK, I guess, so, I think we might be transporting them. I’m not exactly sure, but we’re stuck right here.”

When asked how many to prepare for, the other said, “Twelve, and they’re bringing them out.”

Autopsies have been completed, and the bodies of the miners were returned to the families. State law prohibits the public release of autopsy results. Asked whether 11 of the trapped miners died from carbon monoxide poisoning, state Department of Health and Human Resources spokesman John Law said only, “I don’t think it will be a great surprise.”