facts: `Good news' slowly leads to sorrow, rage
Report from the West Virginia mine
By Tina Moore and Andrew Maykuth
Va. - After a day of hymns
and prayers for 13 coal miners trapped by an explosion, the news of the
miners' survival Tuesday night flashed through a community fortified by
faith and false optimism.
In this small town primed for a miracle, the rumor that 12 miners had
survived seemed to come from nowhere specifically and everywhere at once.
Church bells tolled. Jubilant relatives hugged. Gov. Joe Manchin repeated
the joyous news without qualifications.
Less than three hours later, before dawn yesterday, the cold, hard
truth crashed through the euphoria - all but one of the miners were dead.
The initial report of 12 survivors came from a garbled
"miscommunication" from underground rescue crews, rapidly
relayed by overconfident officials with speed-dialing cell phones.
It was a case of wishful thinking, multiplied by the speed of sound.
This is how the tortured night unfolded:
About 9:30 p.m. Tuesday, as search efforts dragged on into a second
day, there was a development that broke the gloom that had settled over
the rescue effort since word came earlier in the day that high levels of
carbon monoxide had been detected in the part of the mine where the miners
were believed trapped. Manchin told reporters the tram that carried the
trapped miners into the shaft was found intact, giving hope that some
survived the suspected methane-gas explosion.
At 11:45 p.m., the Mine Rescue Command Center "received a report
that 12 miners were alive," according to Ben Hatfield, chief
executive of International Coal Group, the owner of the mine. While
confusion remains about precisely what was conveyed from down in the mine,
several reports state the rescuers, on discovering the trapped miners,
said they were "checking their vital signs," leading those above
ground to believe the miners were alive.
Officials wanted to believe the best. Their excitement spread. Rescue
workers in the vicinity of the command center overheard and grabbed their
cell phones and began spreading the "good news" to friends and
relatives gathered at Sago Baptist Church for a prayer vigil. Company
officials, realizing what was happening, tried to move people out of the
vicinity of the rescue center. But by then it was too late.
"All of a sudden, everybody just burst into applause," said
Diana George, a Red Cross volunteer who was among those gathered around
the church's smoldering campfire. The news spread: "They're OK. They
Word raced through the packed chapel that the miners would be brought
to their families. People lined up along the muddy road that leads to the
church about a mile and a half from the highway to Buckhannon.
"We waited and waited," said John Casto, from nearby Hackers
Creek. "It must have been 31/2 hours."
Looking back, Hatfield said the first report that had caused such
excitement was a garbled misunderstanding between rescue workers
underground and the managers up on the surface. Another ICG executive,
vice president Gene Kitts, suggested the misunderstanding resulted because
rescuers wearing full-face oxygen masks were unable to communicate clearly
on their radios.
By 12:30 a.m., the evidence was mounting that the first report was
wrong. Rescue team members reached "fresh air" and were able to
more clearly communicate. At that point, they reported that "only one
was alive," Hatfield said.
Even then, rescue workers refused to give up hope. Many held on to the
idea that the others were in a comatose state and could still be revived.
In the next hour, the sole survivor was carried to the surface and four
additional rescue teams were sent underground to verify that the miners
were dead, not unconscious. What Hatfield said he didn't want to do was
get such precious information wrong again. "We didn't want to put the
families through another roller coaster," he said yesterday.
"Let's put this in perspective: Who do I tell not to celebrate? I
didn't know whether the number of dead people was 12 or one. All I knew is
that there weren't 12 people that were alive and it's something between 12
By 2 a.m., coal company officials acknowledged the first news was wrong
and began moves to approach the families. They instructed state police
officers to tell clergy that the first reports "may have been too
optimistic," Hatfield said. But not everyone got the message.
At 2:30 a.m., Hatfield and Manchin went to the church to face the
families. The announcement shattered the sense of living in a miracle that
had soared throughout the church.
Some miners began yelling "Liar! Liar!" One woman tried to
attack Hatfield and was held down by state police, George said.
"One guy started cussing," said Casto, whose father was a
miner. "The preacher settled him down and said, 'Right now we need to
be looking for God' and the guy said, 'What can God do now?' "
Lynette Robe had come to the church with her three children when she
heard the bells ring. She wanted her babies to see a miracle, she said.
"Instead, they witnessed this horrible scene," she said.
"It needs to be resolved" she said. "Somebody needs to
step forward. Whoever made this call from underground needs to step
After the families were taken away from the church, volunteers moved in
and began taking away the platters of uneaten food, the boxes of Kleenex.
This article contains information from
Inquirer wire services.