Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
January 5, 2006

The facts: `Good news' slowly leads to sorrow, rage
Report from the West Virginia mine tragedy.

By Tina Moore and Andrew Maykuth

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 found them."

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.

'Only one'

"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.

'Liar! Liar!'

"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 and zero."

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 forward."

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. home page   
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