Tragic 'Misunderstanding' in West Virginia Mine Accident

ByABC News
January 4, 2006, 8:20 AM

Jan. 4, 2006 — -- Family members and friends of 12 men who died in a mine collapse in West Virginia are furious with officials for what is being called a "miscommunication."

Late last night, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin announced that 11 or 12 of the miners who had been trapped by a blast early Monday morning had survived, triggering widespread jubilation in the close-knit mining community of Tallmansville.

The local Baptist church where families and friends were gathered became filled with song, laughter and elation.

Three hours later, another announcement came from Ben Hatfield, chief executive officer for the mine's owner International Coal Group Inc.: Only one man had survived.

Hatfield blamed the wrong information on a "miscommunication."

This is "truly a great tragedy," Hatfield said at an afternoon news conference. "It is unfortunate, and we are saddened by the fact that the communications problems we experienced last night only added to the tragedy."

Hatfield detailed the sequence of events that led to the false information and delay in receiving the correct news.

At 11:45 p.m., the mine rescue command center received a report that 12 miners were found alive, he said. Jubilant rescue workers and mine employees made cell phone calls, spreading the news to family members. "I don't think anyone had a clue how much damage was about to be created," he said.

When the rescue crew emerged from the mine -- and was no longer impeded by the breathing apparatus -- it became clear that only one miner had survived and was taken to a local hospital. Still clinging to hope that this report was wrong, Hatfield said, four additional rescue teams were sent to confirm the deaths or provide medical care to survivors.

Though word was sent to the church where family members were gathered around 2 a.m., he said, it is not clear that they received the update. When the deaths were confirmed, the families were officially informed sometime between 2:30 and 3 a.m.

"We fully recognize the criticism that the company has received about the manner that the news was communicated to the families," Hatfield said.

Officials said most of the trapped miners survived the initial blast and retreated further into the mine, using a curtain-like barrier to block toxic gases as they awaited rescue.

The sole survivor, Randal McCloy, 27, was the youngest of the miners. He was rushed to the hospital, where he is now reportedly in critical condition. He cannot talk, but has been making noises and moaning, said his father-in-law, Charles Green.

"They checked him. He don't have no carbon monoxide in his bloodstream," said Green, whose daughter, Anna, has been with McCloy since they were teenagers. They have two children, a 1-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son.

At a news conference earlier today, Dr. Larry Roberts, who treated McCloy at the University of West Virginia Hospital, said that the miner was in good condition and that tests showed no serious damage to his brain.

"He couldn't talk because he has a breathing tube," Roberts said. "He was squeezing hands. [And making] facial expressions when talking to his wife."

Roberts said that one of McCloy's lungs collapsed because he had remained still and had been unable to take deep breaths for a long period of time. But McCloy's most serious problem is kidney dysfunction, Roberts said.

Somehow, there was an awful miscommunication: Rescuers had not confirmed that 12 were alive, but that 12 were found and that they were being checked for vital signs.

"They didn't have any certainties, and the time has elapsed because they were trying to get more information before giving information that was wrong or erroneous," said Manchin, about why the families were not given accurate information right after the mistake was made.

The rescue effort proved to be quite complex and layered. Word had to travel between several rescue teams and several levels of company administration before finally making it to the worried families.

In the end, the miners who perished -- most of them middle-aged -- likely were simply exposed to carbon monoxide for too long.

As they were trained to do, the miners had constructed a barrier to block deadly carbon monoxide gas. The bodies were recovered near the air hole drilled early on Tuesday in an attempt to reach them.

Each miner carried a breathing apparatus that was designed to supply oxygen in the event of a disaster.

"Despite the overwhelming grief the community feels," Manchin said, "let's remember we do have one miracle and we're thankful for that."

Family members are demanding answers.

"I call this injustice," said Ann Meredith, a relative of a miner. "I will tell you right here now, I am going to sue."

The sadness turned to rage with some of the community members turning on officials. There were reports of fistfights. A SWAT team and about 12 state police officers waited nearby. A Red Cross volunteer, Tamila Swiger, said some people were experiencing nervous breakdowns and panic attacks.

"Tell us our families are coming out alive and then one of them comes out and the rest of them dead," said Daniele Bennett, whose father was killed in the mine. "That's not even right."

"I mean the whole church rejoiced -- that was when they had 11 survivors," said Green, the lone survivor's father-in-law. "When they came back in and they announced my son-in-law, I was still devastated. My heart -- my whole family's heart -- goes out to them."

Manchin, who lost friends and his uncle in a 1968 West Virginia mining accident, said that the miscommunication between rescuers and state and company officials was terrible, but not anyone's fault.

"They knew the odds that were against us -- and with that to have the ending as it did, with this high euphoria," he said. "To put blame on anyone would be wrong, it truly would be."