MELISSA BLOCK, host:
More than six months after the explosion at the Sago Coal Mine in West Virginia, the special investigator appointed by the governor has issued a report. Twelve men died in that disaster.
J. Davitt McAteer is the author of the report. He was the head of the Federal Mine Safety and Health administration under President Clinton. He says the report does not pinpoint the ignition source, the original cause of the explosion itself, but he says the causes of the resulting disaster were many.
Mr. DAVITT McATEER (Investigator, Sago Mine Disaster): The explosion in the sealed area breached the seals that were intended to be protection against explosions occurring and coming out into the working areas of the mines. There were a number of events, beginning with the explosion going through the seals, to the SCSRs. Some of the SCSRs did not work for the miners underground.
BLOCK: SCSRs, when you refer to them, these are these emergency oxygen packs that the miners carry?
Mr. McATEER: That's correct. The rescue efforts were unable to get in to the miners quickly enough. This chain of events led to the tragic demise of these miners.
BLOCK: What did you find out about the performance of those oxygen packs? The survivor of this disaster, Randall McCloy, said that a number of those packs were not working.
Mr. McATEER: He, in a letter, said that four of those packs failed. When they were tested in the laboratory, they appeared to have worked. Unfortunately, we don't need them in the laboratory. We need them to work underground.
BLOCK: Is part of the problem a training problem, in how to use those rescue packs?
Mr. McATEER: It may be part of the problem is a training problem. The second possible problem is that these devices, the self-contained self-rescuers, are aging. They have a “ten year shelf life,” but indeed that shelf life is under rugged conditions, and we found when we examined them that many of them had been damaged over a period of time.
BLOCK: You make what seems to me to be the most sweeping recommendation in this report, and that is that there should be underground rescue chambers within the mines themselves. How would that work?
Mr. McATEER: What we found is that with today's technology, we can, in fact, get to miners who are trapped, but we need to give them the time, and rescue chambers, we believe, give them that time.
BLOCK: Wouldn't a drawback of that be that miners who really should be trying to escape might be tempted instead to retreat and go into this chamber?
Mr. McATEER: The first option is always to try to get out. If that is impossible, we have had experience in Canada, in South Africa, in Australia, where chambers have been successfully employed, and that's why we want very much to look at those as an alternative, if you can not get out.
BLOCK: The survivor of this disaster, Randall McCloy, has said something quite poignant, which is that the miners were down in their little chamber trying to make noise, assuming that there would be equipment above ground trying to figure out where they were, and in fact, none of that equipment was ever brought. Were you, what did you learn about the rescue operation itself and the problems there?
Mr. McATEER: The equipment that Mr. McCloy refers to is a seismic device. It takes 12 to 15 hours to mount and at the same time you have to cut off all other efforts because you're listening for this sounding device. Unfortunately, these miners had in their helmets, as miners across the country do, have a hat sticker, which says, wait for an explosion and then pound on the roof bolts. They spent their time pounding on the roof bolts, but no one was listening. We have to mothball that obsolete equipment and either get new equipment or render different instructions, because that procedure was not followed.
BLOCK: Mr. McAteer, as you piece together what happened at the Sago mine, does it strike you that the disaster was a tragic but very rare series of events, or was it more something that you think could very easily happen somewhere else?
Mr. McATEER: Well, it is a rare series of events, but it could happen in other cases. In this instance, everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and in a mine accident or in an explosion or in a rescue effort, you need some luck, and we had no luck here.
BLOCK: Davitt McAteer, thanks very much.
Mr. McATEER: You're welcome, Melissa, thank you.
BLOCK: J. Davitt McAteer is author of the Sago Mine Disaster Report, which was issued today. He's also the Vice President at Wheeling Jesuit University in Wheeling, West Virginia.