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Sago survivor: Doomed miners expected rescue

/ Source: The Associated Press

As they sat behind a curtain that held back thick smoke but not deadly carbon monoxide, the doomed crew of the Sago Mine talked about the rescue they thought was coming, the sole survivor says.

In a transcript of a June 19 interview with state and federal investigators, Randal McCloy Jr. said he believed a seismographic machine somewhere above them was waiting for a signal from the miners. But they banged on roof bolts in vain: Officials have said such a device was not brought to the mine because it wasn’t needed.

McCloy also added detail to his contention that some of the miners’ air packs didn’t work, something officials who have tested the devices dispute. McCloy said he tried all four of the devices that had failed to work, including one that appeared to have a broken valve.

Twelve men died in the Sago mine: one in the Jan. 2 blast and the rest hours later of carbon monoxide poisoning. McCloy survived more than 40 hours in poisoned air — a feat doctors have never been able to fully explain.

State mine safety officials released the 96-page transcript of McCloy’s two-hour testimony on Wednesday. The Associated Press had requested a copy under the Freedom of Information Act.

McCloy, 27, said he had anticipated help from a seismographic machine like the one that helped save nine men at Pennsylvania’s Quecreek mine after a 78-hour entrapment in 2002.

‘We banged and banged and banged’
“I figured they’d bring that machine down and would have found us, would have drilled the hole in the right spot and would have took us out of there,” he said. “That’s what I expected. I was expecting to hear shots fired on the roof ... and didn’t hear nothing. We banged and banged and banged, everyone did.

“We had a discussion about that, about how long it was going to take. We thought that we was going to get rescued,” he said. “And as time went on, it didn’t look good.”

MSHA spokesman Dirk Fillpot said Wednesday the seismographic equipment was not used because rescuers “were reasonably certain where the miners were located,” and that the machine “is most useful in situations where that is not the case.” He added that it would have taken 12 to 15 hours to set up the equipment, potentially slowing the rescue effort.

McCloy, who is recovering from brain damage stemming from carbon monoxide exposure, said he doesn’t recall whether he’d begun work before the blast occurred but remembers that the mine filled quickly with smoke and dust that hung in the air, choking the crew.

Foreman took charge, to no avail
Foreman Martin “Junior” Toler immediately took charge, calmly organizing his men and telling them to don their self-contained self-rescuers, but Toler’s air pack and three others wouldn’t work, McCloy said. He added that he was among those who shared their oxygen with the four miners.

The men retreated to the face of the mine, hung a cloth barrier and plotted their next move in the light of one headlamp. After about an hour and a half, McCloy said, Toler and Anderson left the barricade to look for a way out. They returned quickly, choking and gagging, turned back by thick smoke and debris.

“All of our options were diminished to nothing,” McCloy said.

At the May hearing, a federal MSHA expert testified that tests on the recovered air packs revealed that they had activated, but that none of them had been used to full capacity.

Focus on air devices
McCloy, however, said in the June interview that every member of his crew — some with more than 30 years of experience — was well trained in the use of the rescuers. He described struggling with one that appeared to have a broken valve.

“I fought with it for I don’t know how long, trying to mess with that valve, blow air through it or anything I could do, but nothing would work,” he told investigators. “You put air into it, you moved it, but there was nothing going on with it. That’s what told me right there it was broken.”

The devices have come under scrutiny since Sago, and the state’s lead investigator has called for nationwide testing underground, where miners need them to work.   Though mine owner International Coal Group Inc. of Ashland, Ky., believes lightning somehow sparked methane gas in the mine, neither state nor federal investigators have identified an official cause of the explosion.

An independent report on the explosion and the investigation is expected to be presented to Gov. Joe Manchin by July 19. J. Davitt McAteer, a former head of MSHA investigating as Manchin’s special adviser, has said he will discuss his report Thursday at a mine safety forum in Charleston.