Twelve Miners Confirmed Dead in Accident
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
It was a night of jubilation and then despair. Family members learned early this morning that 12 of 13 miners who had been trapped in a West Virginia coal mine have died. The only survivor is in critical condition after spending more than 40 hours trapped underground. The news of the deaths came hours after the families were told that nearly all of the men had survived. After a day of increasingly grim information about conditions in the mine, that news of survivors was greeted as a miracle.
(Soundbite of bells ringing)
MONTAGNE: Bells rang around midnight at the Sago Baptist Church where friends and family of the trapped miners had gathered during the rescue effort. They celebrated the news with shouts of joy and singing.
(Soundbite of singing)
Unidentified Group: ...how great thou art. Then sings my soul, my...
MONTAGNE: But then great joy turned to great sorrow and anger a few hours later when word arrived that the good news was untrue. Joining us now is NPR's Frank Langfitt who is near the mine site. Good morning, Frank.
FRANK LANGFITT reporting:
Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: And Frank, how was it that the families got the wrong information; this information that the miners were alive?
LANGFITT: Well, the mining company is saying that it was miscommunication between the surface and the command center near the mine. And they say that it then just spun out of control. Ben Hatfield is the president of the International Coal Group, which owns the mine. He was speaking at a press conference earlier this morning, and here's what he had to say.
(Soundbite from earlier interview)
Mr. BEN HATFIELD (President, International Coal Group): There was a miscommunication that resulted in the command center believing that they were told there were 12 survivors. And because we were all looking for good information and anxious to share that information someone, I'm sure with good intentions, picked up that bad information and spread it to friends and passersby and it quickly got out of control.
LANGFITT: That's the mine company's Ben Hatfield. The families up at the church say they first heard this information from a mine foreman who had a cell phone and was receiving information from the front of the mine. But it came about three hours three hours for the company to then deny and change the story. And that left people very upset.
MONTAGNE: What was the family's reaction to this really stunning news?
LANGFITT: Well, people were furious and enormously confused, and some of them began to accuse the company of lying. There was a man named Harley Ables who lost his brother-in-law, Fred Ware--he's one of the miners. And he said that, you know--one of the things he said when he came out was it's nothing but lies. And people also couldn't understand how this information had got out, and why the company hadn't corrected it earlier. You know, over a period of about five hours, they'd gone from despondency to euphoria, then to this sort of despair and confusion. And many of them kind of left the site just stunned and crying.
MONTAGNE: Frank, do we know any more about what actually happened in that mine and what caused these men's deaths?
LANGFITT: Well, we know a lot more than we did. For many, many hours, the rescuers searched throughout the mine for the miners, and when they finally found them, they were together and it turned out that they had built a barrier, stretched fabric out about 20 feet wide to try to block carbon monoxide gas. So it appears that most of them survived this initial explosion at least for some time and were trying to save themselves. They also had breathing apparatus. As you remember, carbon monoxide levels in parts of the mine where the rescuers drilled holes was very toxic, and so there was great concern as to whether they would be able to survive that. It looks as though this may have been what caused their deaths in the end.
What we don't now is what would have caused the carbon monoxide exactly. Was it a buildup of methane gas? Was it coal dust? They're really not quite sure what happened.
Another thing that I think that people will be focusing more on in the coming days is a lot of these citations, some of them very serious or pretty serious, about the way the mine was operating. And with the families as bitter as they are right now, I think we will see them raising more and more questions and putting more pressure on this company to answer these questions as soon as possible.
MONTAGNE: NPR's Frank Langfitt, thank you very much for joining us.
LANGFITT: You're very welcome, Renee.