US miners hung a gas curtain and waited to be rescued

With their escape routes blocked by heavy smoke, most of the 13 miners caught in an explosion did what they were trained to do.

With their escape routes blocked by heavy smoke, most of the 13 miners caught in an explosion did what they were trained to do. They retreated deeper into the West Virginia mine and hung a curtain-like barrier to keep out toxic gases while they waited for rescuers to find them, officials said.

All but one were found dead more than a day and half after the blast.

The miners’ families learned of the 12 deaths during a torturous night in which they were mistakenly told at first that 12 of the men were alive. It was three hours before the families were told the truth, and their joy turned instantly to fury, with one man lunging at coal company officials.

It was the nation’s deadliest coal-mining accident in more than four years.

The sole survivor, 26-year-old Randal McCloy, is in a critical condition suffering from a collapsed lung, dehydration and other serious problems, but showing no sign of carbon monoxide poisoning after being trapped for more than 42 hours, a doctor said.

McCloy was the youngest miner in the group.

Ben Hatfield, chief executive of mine-owner International Coal Group, said that the company did the best it could under extreme stress and exhaustion, and that officials “sincerely regret” the families were left to believe for so long that their loved ones were alive.

“In the process of being cautious, we allowed the jubilation to go on longer than it should have,” a choked-up Hatfield said.

He said the initial mistake resulted from a miscommunication among the rescue crews.

Another ICG executive, vice-president Gene Kitts, suggested the misunderstanding resulted because the rescuers who reached the victims were wearing full-face oxygen masks and used radios to report their findings to their base.

One of the dead was discovered several hundred feet from where the others had barricaded themselves in the maze-like mine, officials said. Hatfield said the miner, found near a belt used to move coal to the surface, was apparently killed by the force of the blast.

The other men were apparently deeper into the mine at the time and survived the blast. But the mine company would not say exactly how they died or how long they survived, citing family privacy.

“They felt the percussion and heard the noise,” Hatfield said. “We believe they probably encountered heavy smoke and the ventilation system was obstructed. They then did what skilled miners do.”

McCloy and the 11 others were found at the deepest point of the mine, about two and a half miles from the entrance, behind a fibrous plastic cloth stretched across an area about 20 feet wide to keep out deadly carbon monoxide gas, Hatfield said.

Such curtains, called battices, are used in mines to direct air flow, and miners are trained to use them in emergencies.

Each of the miners in the barricaded area also had a breathing apparatus that purifies the air and had been able to use it, according to mine officials.

Late yesterday, about 200 people gathered outside the Sago Baptist Church near the mine for a vigil to remember the lost miners, singing hymns and holding candles to the sky.

One by one, people at the service spoke about the victims. Many were friends, fellow coal miners or rescuers who spent several days at the mine.

The outlook for the men appeared bleak on Tuesday morning, when rescuers found deadly levels of carbon monoxide – a by-product of combustion – in the mine, and got no response when they banged on a steel pipe.

Hatfield refused to say whether the miners wrote notes to their families.

ICG’s Kitts said the rescuers realised McCloy was alive when they heard his moans. Kitts said McCloy may have been the farthest away from the bad air. Doctors said McCloy’s youth may also have helped him survive. Most of the other miners were in their 50s.

McCloy was in intensive care at West Virginia University’s Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, undergoing dialysis because of damage to his kidneys from dehydration. Dr Lawrence Roberts said McCloy squeezed his wife’s hand yesterday and was communicating with other movements.

At one point, Roberts said McCloy’s blood pressure, heart rate and other laboratory tests were relatively normal, but he said yesterday evening that McCloy was experiencing problems related to oxygen deprivation that affected his heart, liver, kidneys and perhaps his brain.

“We are doing everything we possibly can,” Roberts told CNN.

The miners had been trapped 260 feet below the surface since Monday morning in the Sago Mine, about 100 miles north-east of Charleston. As rescue workers tried to reach the men, families waited at Sago Baptist Church during a gruelling vigil.

The mine has one shaft with two shafts extending to the left, forming a giant F-shape. One of the dead miners was found near the second left turn in the mine. The others were found at the far end of the shaft formed by the top of the backward F-shape.

Federal and state authorities said they would investigate the cause of the blast. Coal-mine explosions are typically caused by build-ups of naturally occurring methane gas or highly combustible coal dust in the air.

David Dye, who heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the investigation will include “how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners’ conditions”.

The devastating information about the dead shocked and angered family members, who had rejoiced with West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin hours earlier when word spread that 12 miners were alive.

Church bells pealed and politicians proclaimed the rescue a miracle before the real story came out.

Hatfield said about 45 minutes after the mine rescue command centre received word that 12 miners were alive, the company realised it may have got it wrong.

But families were not told of the mistake until three hours later, in part, Hatfield said, because officials wanted to make sure all of their information was correct.

Chaos broke out in the church and a fight started. Police were called in for fear of violence.

A fund to provide financial support to the miners’ families has been established by ICG, company chairman Wilbur Ross announced.

“No amount of money can take the place of a loved one, but the families do have financial needs as well," he said in a prepared statement

The explosion was West Virginia’s deadliest coal mining accident since 1968, when 78 men – including Manchin’s uncle – died in an explosion at a mine in Marion County, an hour’s drive from Sago. That disaster prompted Congress to pass the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.

It was the US' worst coal-mining disaster since a pair of explosions tore through a mine in Brookwood, Alabama, on September 23, 2001, killing 13.

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