MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The coalminer who survived the Sago Mine explosion in West Virginia has written a letter to the families of his coworkers who died. In it he says that at least four of the miners' emergency air packs, or rescuers, did not work. The letter was obtained by the Associated Press and we're going to read parts of it now.

BLOCK: Randal McCloy, Jr. writes that after the explosion “the first thing we did was activate our rescuers as we had been trained. At least four of the rescuers did not function. I shared my rescuer with Jerry Groves while Junior Toler, Jesse Jones, and Tom Anderson sought help from others. There were not enough rescuers to go around.”

SIEGEL: McCloy says the miners tried to escape, but the air was too bad, so they retreated and hung a curtain to keep out poisonous gases. He continues, “We attempted to signal our location to the surface by beating on the mine bolts and plates. We found a sledgehammer and for a long time we took turns pounding away. We had to take off the rescuers in order to hammer as hard as we could, this effort caused us to breathe much harder. We never heard a response of blast or shot from the surface.”

BLOCK: “As time went on”, McCloy writes, “I became very dizzy and lightheaded. Some drifted off into what appeared to be a deep sleep and one person sitting near me collapsed and fell off his bucket, not moving. It was clear that there was nothing I could do to help him. The last person I remember speaking to was Jackie Weaver, who reassured me that if it was our time to go, then God's will would be fulfilled. As my trapped coworkers lost consciousness one by one, the room grew still and I continued to sit and wait, unable to do much else. I have no idea how much time went by before I also passed out from the gas and smoke, awaiting rescue.”

SIEGEL: Those words contained in a letter from Randal McCloy, Jr., who survived the Sago Mine explosion in January. Twelve miners were killed.

BLOCK: Dan Heyman of West Virginia Public Broadcasting joins us now and Dan tell us more about the air packs or the rescuers referred to, how are they supposed to work?

DAN HEYMAN reporting:

These are what's called self-contained, self-rescuing units. They're about the size and shape of a canteen, about five pounds. Every miner usually carries one on their belt. They're supposed to, at least the ones that were used at Sago, use a chemical reaction to create about an hour's worth of oxygen and on the top of each unit, there's a small peep hole that shows either blue if the unit is good or pink if it's not good. And the miners are trained to check that every day before they go onto they're shift.

BLOCK: And now Randal McCoy, who survived, saying that at least four of those rescuers didn't work. What are investigators saying about that?

HEYMAN: Well, there is some difference of opinion there. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has said that they examined the packs that were recovered from underground after the explosion and the tests that they conducted on those devices found that they had been activated and would have functioned properly. And in fact, a spokesman for MSHA is saying the agency is looking into whether or not the miners received adequate training in using those self-rescuer units.

Now, the miners disagree with that pretty strongly. They say that the units didn't work.

BLOCK: These were miners who escaped the initial black who were towards the entrance of the mine?

HEYMAN: That's right. There were two miners who got out and they said, one of them said these self-rescuer units just didn't work worth a darn, more or less, is what he said.

BLOCK: Dan, have the families of the miners who died responded to this letter in any way?

HEYMAN: Yeah, this has been pretty emotional for them, apparently. In fact, one of the family members is Wanda Gross, who was the mother of Jerry Gross, who was one of the miners who died. And in fact, Jerry shared his oxygen with Randal McCloy. Wanda actually had a minor stroke while reading McCloy's letter and had to be taken to the hospital. And she was released.

But she said that she was very grateful to Randal for sharing his oxygen with her son and she said if they both had rescuer packs that worked, they might have lasted a little longer.

BLOCK: Dan Heyman of West Virginia Public Broadcasting. Dan, thanks very much.

HEYMAN: You bet.

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