Sago Mine Owner Offers Lightning Theory

The owner of the Sago Mine in West Virginia has a theory on what caused the explosion that killed 12 miners: Lightning. But state and federal investigators are skeptical.

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What killed a dozen miners at the Sago coal mine in West Virginia last January? During public hearings this week, the mine owner is pushing an unusual theory that a lightning strike penetrated the mine and set off an explosion.

But miners' family members and government investigators remain skeptical, as NPR'S Frank Langfitt reports from Buckhannon, West Virginia.

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

The cause of the Sago mine disaster remains a mystery. But the International Coal Group, which owns the mine, says events could have unfolded like this: an unusually powerful lightning bolt hit a tree, spread to a power line, and then traveled several miles to the bottom of the mine, where it ignited methane gas.

Thomas Novak is an engineering professor at Virginia Tech and a paid consultant to the coal company. He said he couldn't find evidence that anything else caused the explosion.

Professor THOMAS NOVAK (Mining and Minerals Engineering, Virginia Tech): So what are we left with? Lightning. And on the morning of the explosion there was a severe and somewhat rare lightening storm for that time of the year, that passed through the area of the mine.

LANGFITT: In fact, lightening strikes have caused mine explosions in the past. One Alabama mine experienced three such blasts in the 1990s. But experts at the hearing said an electrical charge from lightening has never traveled so far and through so many conduits to ignite an explosion.

Davitt McAteer used to run the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, or MSHA. He's chairing this week's hearing. He responded to Novak's explanation with this.

Mr. J. DAVITT MCATEER (Former Director of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration): I'm not saying it in an argumentative way. You know, we've been mining in the country for a hundred years, and this is the first time, I mean, that we...

Prof. NOVAK: Well, it may be, it may not be. I mean...

LANGFITT: McAteer pressed further.

Mr. MCATEER: Would you characterize your finding here as more of a hypothesis than any, than a conclusion?

Prof. NOVAK: Preliminary, I'd say it's a little strong, but, yeah, okay. It could be, yeah, a hypothesis. Until I back it up with some simulations.

LANGFITT: The miners' family members seemed even more skeptical, and they accused the International Coal Group, or ICG as it's called, of using a novel theory to spin the process.

Sarah Jane Bailey(ph) lost her father, Junior Hamner (ph), at Sago. She read from a statement.

Ms. SARAH JANE BAILEY (Daughter of Sago Mine Victim): ICG has announced that the explosion was caused by a lightening strike in an attempt to influence public opinions before MSHA and the state completed their investigation.

LANGFITT: Ben Hatfield is president of ICG. He insists the company isn't trying to muddy the waters, but just get important information to the public in a timely manner.

Mr. BEN HATFIELD (President, International Coal Group): So we simply wanted to share the information we had with our miners, with their families, and we think that was very much the appropriate step. We do not believe that we had all the answers, or we didn't say we did. And we never said that we stopped the investigation. Our efforts are continuing, and we will continue to support all efforts to get answers.

LANGFITT: Tony Oppegard is a former federal mine safety official. After the hearing, he summed up the mine owners' position like this.

Mr. TONY OPPEGARD (former federal mine safety official): One of the things the company is trying to do is to argue that it's an act of God. And you know, we hear that frequently in mining disasters. And the fact is that almost all accidents are act of man.

LANGFITT: Today federal and state mine investigators are scheduled to explain what they've found so far and what they think might have caused the blast. But it may be some time before either issues a final conclusion.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Buckhannon, West Virginia.

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