Miner's Letter Says Sago Air Masks Failed

ByABC News via via logo

April 28, 2006 — -- By the end of his ordeal in the Sago mine explosion on Jan. 2, Randal McCloy was in a coma.

A letter he wrote to his late co-workers' families, though, makes it clear that he has vivid memories, including that some of the emergency air packs didn't work and that he shared his with Jerry Groves, who died.

"The biggest thing for me is whenever I read it and see that Randal McCloy had to share his rescuer with my brother Jerry, to know that he sacrificed his oxygen and the other gentlemen sacrificed their oxygen to help their, I'm going to say brothers," said John Groves, Jerry Groves's brother. "I don't want to say co-workers because they shared them as brothers."

After the West Virginia explosion, McCloy wrote, he and his fellow miners switched on their emergency air packs, filled with an hour's worth of precious oxygen. Four of the packs, which are called "rescuers," didn't work.

"I do remember that the mine filled quickly with fumes and thick smoke, and that breathing conditions were nearly unbearable," McCloy wrote in his letter, which was dated April 26.

The Groves family was grateful to read that McCloy had shared his oxygen with 56-year-old Jerry Groves, who had been a miner for 28 years.

"I would just like to thank Mr. McCloy for sharing his oxygen with our brother. I thank him so much," said Becky Rogers, Jerry Groves's sister.

But The Groves family is also shocked and angry that the rescuers hadn't worked -- especially when the mine owners are saying that they did. Wanda Groves, Jerry Groves' mother, collapsed and suffered a minor stroke when she read the letter.

The mine owners say that federal investigators examined the air masks after the disaster and that all of them were functioning. Mining experts say those masks can be difficult to operate, especially in smoky conditions.

John Groves says that a transcript shows that when rescue officials arrived to help the miners, they were also unable to get the air masks to work. The miners, he says, knew what they were doing.

"There was over 100 years of experience inside that coal mine," John Groves said.

McCloy's letter describes how his team found a sledgehammer and "took turns pounding away," trying to signal its location -- and received no response.

"We were worried and afraid," McCloy wrote, "but we began to accept our fate. Junior Toler led us all in the Sinner's Prayer."

The Sinner's Prayer asks for grace instead of judgment.

"I think most of them were Christians, anyway," John Groves said. "And … they did everything they could -- and they, I guess, essentially just knew that it was going to be the end for them and they were preparing themselves."

McCloy, still recovering, says he hopes his letter will give solace to the miners' families.

ABC News' Nancy Weiner originally reported this story for "Good Morning America."

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