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HomeNewsLocal NewsNews Summary

Wednesday, January 4, 2006
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Back to headlines
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Condition of trapped miners in West Virginia unknown


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By Brian Bowling and David Conti
Monday, January 2, 2006

SAGO, W.Va. -- Families huddled inside a Baptist church awaiting word, as rescuers worked to free 13 miners trapped underground Monday by an early morning explosion and cave-in.

The condition of the miners was not immediately known. Four co-workers tried to reach them but were stopped by a wall of debris, and the blast knocked out the mine's comm

unication equipment, preventing authorities from contacting the miners.

It was not known how much air they had or how big a space they were in. The miners had air-purifying equipment but no oxygen tanks, a co-worker said.

Anna McCloy, of Simpson, W.Va., said her husband, Randall McCloy, was among those missing and had planned to get out of mining.

"He didn't get out quick enough," she said, fighting back tears. "I just want to hold him again."

Another trapped miner, Jim Bennett, 61, planned to retire this year, said his son-in-law Daniel Merideth.

"Everyday he would come home and pray for who was going in," said Merideth, who stood outside the mining complex. "Right now he is probably in there witnessing to people. He would be organizing and praying."

The first of eight search-and-rescue teams walked into the Sago Mine at 5 p.m., more than 11 hours after the blast trapped the miners 260 feet underground.

Rescuers were kept out of the mine most of the day while dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide were vented through holes drilled into the ground.

Clifford Rice, 38, who lives a couple hundred yards from the mine, heard the explosion.

"There was a huge white light. It sounded like somebody set off a powder keg. It shook the whole house. It shook the windows. I thought it was lightning hitting the ground," Rice said.

Most of the 200 co-workers and relatives at Sago Baptist stood in small silent circles outside the church.

The eight-member rescue team's entry into the mine brought hope to friends and relatives gathered at the Sago Baptist Church across the Buckhannon River from the mine, about 140 miles south of Pittsburgh.

"That's the only real good news we've heard today," said Kevin Sharp, 48, whose brother-in-law Marty has worked at the mine for about 30 years and was among those inside the rural Upshur County mine.

Sharp, who lives in Buckhannon about seven miles north of the mine, said many people were hoping the day's events would end like the July 2002 Quecreek Mine rescue in Somerset County, where nine miners were safely pulled from the underground works after being trapped for more than three days.

"That is in all our minds," Sharp said.

Rescue units that the miners carry on their belts filter carbon monoxide, providing air for only an hour, said Gene Kitts, senior vice president of mining services for Ashland, Ky.-based International Coal Group, which owns the mine. A fan at the entrance is pushing air into the mine, Kitts said.

Six miners escaped from the mine after the blast. Kitts said mine officials have not been able to contact the other 13 miners.

"The two systems we use to communicate from the surface ... are not operating. I can't speculate on why," Kitts said.

A rescue team from Upper St. Clair-based Consol Energy Inc.'s Robinson Run Mine in Shinnston, W.Va. -- one of five rescue teams at the scene last night -- entered the mine on foot for fear of sparking another explosion. A second team later was able to operate a battery-powered car in areas where gas levels had been checked, Consol spokesman Thomas Hoffman said.

A group of miners earlier in the day made it about 8,000 feet into the mine before turning away "for safety reasons," Kitts said. He and other company officials declined to say what the first group encountered.

Workers planned to drill a small hole into the mine to send down air-monitoring equipment and possibly a listening device.

The miners were about 10,000 feet -- or a slightly less than two miles -- from the mine's entrance, Kitts said.

Kitts said the experience levels of the trapped miners ranged from a few years to more than 35 years.

"They know to get to the safest area possible down there," Kitts said. Coal mine explosions are typically caused by buildups of naturally occurring methane gas, and the danger increases in the winter months, when the barometric pressure can release the odorless, colorless and highly flammable gas.

The mine has a single entrance, and the shaft winds its way for miles underground. The miners were supposed to be working about 160 feet below the surface, said the wife of one of the trapped men. But it was unclear how far into the shaft they had gone when the blast struck.

Kitts said International Coal was preparing to drill into the mine to reach the miners.

"If the miners are barricaded, as we hope they are, they would prepare themselves for rescue by rationing," Kitts said. The miners would probably have only their lunches and water on hand.

"These miners are experienced. They are well-trained," Kitts said. "We are just praying they had an opportunity to put their training to use."

The blast happened as the first shift of miners entered to resume production after the holiday, officials said.

Randall McCloy has been a miner for three years, two of them in the Sago mine, his wife said. The miner's mother, Tambra Flint, of Bridgeport, W.Va., clung to her faith and her confidence in her son.

"He's a smart boy," Flint said. "If there's any way to survive down there, my son will survive. He knew the dangers. He didn't take anything for granted," Samantha Lewis, whose husband, David, 28, was among those trapped, said he worked the mines so that he could be home every night to take care of their three daughters while she worked on a master's degree in health care administration.

"This was a good way to make a living until we could find something else," said Lewis, whose father, grandfather and stepfather also worked in the mines. "It's just a way of life. Unless you're a coal miner or you have a college degree, you don't make any money."

International Coal acquired the Sago Mine last March, when it bought Anker West Virginia Mining Co., which had been in bankruptcy. The Sago Mine produced about 800,000 tons of coal annually, the company said. The mine has never had a fatality, according to federal records.

West Virginia ended 2005 with three mining deaths, the lowest number since 2000. In February 2003, three contract workers were killed by a methane explosion while drilling an air shaft at a Consol Energy coal mine near Cameron W.Va.

In September 2001, 13 coal miners were killed in a series of explosions at a mine in Broached, Ala. That was the nation's worst mining accident since 1984, when fire killed 27 coal miners near Orangeville, Utah.

The deadliest coal mining disaster in U.S. history was an explosion in 1907 in Monongah that killed 362 people.

Brian Bowling and David Conti can be reached at or (412) 320-7910.

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