SCRIPT: Sago Mine Owner Speaks 1/5/06

So how safe was Sago mine and what does the man who controls it plan to do for the miners and families left behind? Will he be as generous as he can be? Is he personally giving any money at all? Here's ABC Chief Investigative Correspondent Brian Ross.

BRIAN ROSS, ABC NEWS

A little known billionaire with an office in a New York City skyscraper is the man who bears the ultimate responsibility for the mine in West Virginia.

WILBUR ROSS, OWNER OF THE SAGO MINE

Oh, my God, it's the worst week of my entire life.

BRIAN ROSS

Wilbur Ross is a socially prominent businessman with homes on Fifth Avenue, the Hamptons and Palm Beach. He is also the chairman and principal owner of the company that took over the Sago mine just a few months ago.

BRIAN ROSS

Would you call this a safe mine?

WILBUR ROSS

I believed that the mine was fundamentally safe.

BRIAN ROSS

You really do?

WILBUR ROSS

Yeah, I really do.

BRIAN ROSS

And in the business world, Ross is considered a shrewd investor who buys companies in trouble. He began moving into the coal industry two years ago.

BRIAN ROSS

You're known by some on Wall Street as a vulture investor, a bottom feeder. Someone who goes in, buys up distressed bankrupt industries, tries to cut costs, and then sell them and make huge profits. Is that an accurate description?

WILBUR ROSS

No, I think if we had a bird, it wouldn't be the vulture. A vulture picks flesh off a dead carcass.

BRIAN ROSS

The tiny Sago mine in West Virginia had been in bankruptcy for two years when Ross bought it and bought into a mine that for its size may have been the most dangerous coal mine in America. Based on Department of Labor records reviewed by "Primetime," the mine received 16 citations last year for the most serious violations that can be issued, called unwarranted failures.

JOE MAIN, FORMER UNITED MINE WORKERS SAFETY DIRECTOR

It's normally issued to mine operators that thumb their nose at the law.

BRIAN ROSS

Joe Main was the safety director of the United Mine Workers for 20 years.

JOE MAIN

This is the kind of violation I think most operators cringe to get in the mining industry today because of the significance of the violation itself. So there was definitely a serious problem at this coal mine when you look at just that one fact alone.

BRIAN ROSS

And it turns out that the violations were well-known to the billionaire chairman of the company back in New York.

WILBUR ROSS

Well, there were violations. Every mine in the country has violations.

BRIAN ROSS

208 violations, 96 of them significant or substantial, 13 D-level. You know what that means?

WILBUR ROSS

Yeah.

BRIAN ROSS

That means unwarranted failure.

WILBUR ROSS

I understand what they mean.

BRIAN ROSS

How could you operate a mine like that? Why would you keep it open with those records of violations?

WILBUR ROSS

Well, you have to put it in the context of the industry. I mean...

BRIAN ROSS

Every day, men go down into those holes.

WILBUR ROSS

I understand.

BRIAN ROSS

Where, according to the records, and you've seen them...

WILBUR ROSS

Sure.

BRIAN ROSS

The roofs keep falling in. They found combustible materials in there just weeks before this accident.

WILBUR ROSS

Yeah.

BRIAN ROSS

Were you comfortable sending men into that hole?

WILBUR ROSS

We were comfortable based on the assurances from our management that they felt that it was a safe situation.

BRIAN ROSS

But in West Virginia today, Mr. Ross' assurances and the company's safety record were the source of anger for some miners and their families. Tambra Flint is the mother of the only survivor, Randal McCloy.

TAMBRA FLINT, MOTHER

I do have some anger. You know, I'm angry that they would have so many citations and it just sounds to me like, you know, that people knew it was dangerous. You know, that there were dangers that probably should have been addressed. And, so, yes, you know, I'm angry about that.

BRIAN ROSS

In fact, the documents examined by "Primetime" show there were a total of 20 roof collapses at the Sago mine last year as well as government orders to partially shut down the mine more than a dozen times.

BRIAN ROSS

How recently had been the partial shutdown ordered by the government?

WILBUR ROSS

I don't recall the exact date.

BRIAN ROSS

Sometime in December?

WILBUR ROSS

It might have been. It might very well have been.

BRIAN ROSS

And that didn't concern you?

WILBUR ROSS

Everything concerns us, but...

BRIAN ROSS

Thirteen partial shutdowns, didn't you start sitting here in New York, in your skyscraper suite, didn't you start to wonder whether this mine was perhaps about to blow?

WILBUR ROSS

Well, shutdowns and about to blow are not exactly the same circumstance.

JACK SPADARO, FORMER MINING HEALTH AND SAFETY ADMINISTRATION EMPLOYEE

His company really stands out as an irresponsible and dangerous operation.

BRIAN ROSS

Until he retired a year and a half ago, Jack Spadaro was in charge of training federal mine inspectors for the Department of Labor.

JACK SPADARO

These are substantial violations. They really, they go to the heart of mine health and safety. That small of a mine has that large a number of violations, it jumps out, and it should definitely have been closed.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH

Our nation mourns those who lost their lives in the mining accident in West Virginia.

BRIAN ROSS

But Spadaro says under the Bush Administration, the officials in charge of mine safety have become too cozy with the coal industry.

JACK SPADARO

The inspectors have been forbidden from being as aggressive as they need to be in situations like this with the Sago mine. They can't go ahead and close the mine, use the authority that they have to do the job that they've been charged to do.

BRIAN ROSS

Some now liken Ross to the coal barrens of the 19th and early 20th century. His coal mining company, the International Coal Group, was listed on the New York Stock Exchange just six weeks ago, on November 21st. Later that same week in November, there were two more of the 20 roof collapses reported at the Sago mine.

BRIAN ROSS

When you get reports of the roof collapsing again and again and again, doesn't that concern you?

WILBUR ROSS

Oh, sure it does.

BRIAN ROSS

You're the man in charge.

WILBUR ROSS

Sure it does. And what I can tell you is we have never scrimped on safety expenditures.

BRIAN ROSS

Do you accept responsibility now?

WILBUR ROSS

Sure.

BRIAN ROSS

For what happened?

WILBUR ROSS

Absolutely.

BRIAN ROSS

As the families in West Virginia prepare to bury their dead and figure out how to survive, they got word that the company was going to set up a fund for them.

BRIAN ROSS

And how much has your company put in?

WILBUR ROSS

Two million dollars. We put the first...

BRIAN ROSS

Two million dollars?

WILBUR ROSS

And we're also...

BRIAN ROSS

Now, let me ask you. You're a billionaire by all accounts. How did you come up with a figure of $2 million? It seems, with all due respect, sir, sort of cheap.

WILBUR ROSS

Well, the board had a meeting. We decided that we would put the first $2 million into the fund and to try to raise more money to help the workers.

BRIAN ROSS

In West Virginia today, some called Mr. Ross' offer of charity too little and too late.

JUDY SCHACKELFORD, LOCAL RESIDENT

Well, two million between 13, no 12 men, one's still living, that's not a lot.

KEVIN SHARP, LOCAL RESIDENT

It's easy to throw a couple million afterwards instead of spending a few million ahead of time to save the men's lives in the first place.

BRIAN ROSS

Wilbur Ross, whose recent lavish wedding was the talk of New York society, says he hopes Americans will give generously to the miners, although he admitted to us he's yet to give a dollar of his own money.

BRIAN ROSS

Have you personally put any money in?

WILBUR ROSS

We own about a third of the company, and we will decide what to do about a personal contribution as we see what comes in from outside.

BRIAN ROSS

As the chairman, would you call that generous?

WILBUR ROSS

We think it's a good start toward helping the people.

GERI TRINKLE, LOCAL RESIDENT

This is West Virginia. People, you know, here care. Money isn't everything, you know. Money is nothing.

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