Search for Answers in W.Va. Mining Disaster Begins

Betty Casto comforts her husband Earl inside the Sago Baptist Church in Tallmansville, W. Va.,

Betty Casto comforts her husband Earl inside the Sago Baptist Church in Tallmansville, W. Va., Jan. 4, 2006. Earl Casto's cousin George Hamner was one of 12 miners who died. Reuters hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters

Twelve of 13 men are dead in one of the worst mining accidents in years. The White House has promised a full investigation of the disaster. Major questions remain: What sparked the blast that trapped the miners? And why weren't mistaken reports of a miracle rescue corrected more quickly?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Their fate is now known. Twelve of the 13 men are dead in one of the nation's worst mining accidents in years. The president of International Coal Group, the company that owns the mine in West Virginia, called rescue workers true heroes. He also said the company did the best it could under trying circumstances.

SIEGEL: There are still big questions about what happened at the Sago mine. What sparked the explosion that trapped the men more than 200 feet below ground? And why were family members allowed to believe false reports of the miracle rescue for hours? From West Virginia, NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

After a wrenching two-day vigil at a coal mine in Sago, West Virginia, rescuers found all but one miner dead. As federal officials prepared to investigate the cause of the blast, the mine company moved in to do damage control. At a news conference, officials with the mine's owner, International Coal Group, tried to explain how miners' family members received incorrect information that nearly all of their loved ones were alive. Company executive Gene Kitts said the root of the problem was miscommunication between rescue workers underground who were working with masks around their faces and the people who they relayed their information to.

Mr. GENE KITTS (Executive, International Coal Group): All that we know is the mine rescue team knew what they found; when it was communicated to the surface, it came across as 12 alive.

LANGFITT: That news quickly spread as rescue workers on the surface began calling others in the community by cell phone to share what seemed miraculous news. Coal company President Ben Hatfield said the company delayed relaying any information to family members for more than 90 minutes to make sure they had their facts straight.

Mr. BEN HATFIELD (President, International Coal Group): We fully recognize the criticism that the company has received about the manner in which the news was communicated to the families. Rightly or wrongly, we believed it was important to make factual statements to the families. We made what we believed to be the best decisions based on the information available while working under extreme stress and physical exhaustion. And in the process of being cautious, we allowed the jubilation to go on longer than it should have.

LANGFITT: But for family members, the experience was excruciating. When Harley Ables was first told his soon-to-be brother-in-law Fred Ware was alive, he was elated like everyone else. Then three hours later, mine officials told everyone gathered in the church across from the mine that there had been a huge mistake. Harley Ables was furious.

Mr. HARLEY ABLES: Ten minutes till 12, they said they had 12 survivors. Ten minutes ago they said they had one survivor and 11 deceased. Now they got the whole world thinking there was 12 survivors. The coal company is blaming it on communications failure. They straight out lied to millions of people watching.

LANGFITT: People inside the church said a few fainted at news that nearly all the miners had died. Some in the crowd shouted down the mine company officials. Nick Helms lost his father Terry, who was a safety officer in the mine. He said mine officials did not apologize and that upon hearing the news, one miner's family member tried to rush company officials.

Mr. NICK HELMS (Son of Victim): There was no apology. There was no nothing. There they immediately--out the door with no words. There wasn't any punches thrown. There was--wrestled the one guy down before he got any closer.

LANGFITT: Coal mining has been a way of life for generations of people in the hills of West Virginia, and it pays well, especially in a part of the country where good jobs aren't easy to find. Young miners can make $75,000 a year here. But the loss of so many miners at once has people rethinking the risks. Matthew(ph) and Danielle George(ph) got married last weekend. Matthew is 22, and he's been thinking of becoming a miner. Last night over dinner at a KFC a few miles from the mine, Danielle explained how their thinking had changed.

Mrs. DANIELLE GEORGE: He was wanting to go into the mines, and my mom was going to help him pay for the classes. And after I seen that the other day, I told him he wasn't allowed to go into the mines or I'd hurt him.

LANGFITT: Matthew George says he'd rather work on oil rigs. It doesn't pay as well as mining, but he thinks it's safer.

Mr. MATTHEW GEORGE: I thought the mines would be a good place to go, and then this happened. And it does discouraging things and...

LANGFITT: As the hopes and fears of the community rose and fell last night, you could read it on the signs businesses put along the side of the road. When things looked bleak, the local Hardee's asked people to `pray for our miners.' When it looked like most were saved, another signed called them, quote, "our miracle miners." The sign was still up several hours after the company told the families the sad truth. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Bridgeport, West Virginia.

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