The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 70/No. 20           May 22, 2006  
Sago miners’ relatives denounce
bosses’ responsibility in disaster
(front page)
BUCKHANNON, West Virginia—During a three-day public hearing into the deaths of 12 miners killed January 2 at the Sago Mine in West Virginia, family members expressed outrage at safety conditions in the mine and the slow response by company and Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) officials in mounting a rescue effort.

Relatives were also angry that four months after the deaths in the mine, investigations by the mine owners and state and federal mine safety officials were “inconclusive” as to the cause of the explosion, which trapped the miners in a highly toxic atmosphere for some 40 hours. MSHA officials said their investigation would continue at least through the summer.

Family members scorned the International Coal Group’s (ICG) “preliminary investigation,” which speculates that a lightning strike caused the mine explosion.

Speaking at the hearing, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) president Cecil Roberts said, “Whatever you may think of ICG’s lightning theory, we do know one thing. These miners were not killed by an explosion. And if you survive an explosion, there should be a way for you to get out of the mine. And miners should be provided with all the oxygen they need to survive for however long it takes to be rescued.”

The questioning of MSHA officials by the family members exposed the slipshod character of the company’s and the agency’s rescue plan. According to all the testimony, an explosion occurred near where the 12 miners were working at 6:26 a.m. ICG delayed for two hours notifying MSHA. Seven hours passed before the first rescue plan was approved, and that only involved changing the ventilation scheme in the mine. “This was never a rescue effort. It was a recovery effort,” said Russell Bennett whose father, Marty Bennett, was among the dead miners.
Equipment lacking
The hearing showed that vital equipment for the rescue effort was not available or may have malfunctioned. Randal McCloy, the only miner to survive the disaster, wrote a letter April 26 to the dead miners’ families reporting that four of their emergency air packs had failed. Asked about this, ICG CEO Bennett Hatfield said he could not comment on McCloy’s letter, but asserted that all the air packs from the crew had been retrieved and “were found to be working.”

Trapped miners are trained to tap on roof bolts with a hammer to signal their location to rescuers, and a seismograph is used to determine where they are. The miners also listen for concussion shots set off above ground by rescue crews to acknowledge their signals.

No seismograph was on hand and no shots were set off. Asked why, MSHA district manager Kevin Stricklin said it would have taken eight hours to get the instrument and set it up.

“But we know from the notes left by the men that they were alive at 4:45 p.m.,” shot back Pam Campbell, Marty Bennett’s sister-in-law. That was more than 10 hours after the explosion, she noted.

“You failed these men,” said Russell Bennett. “They are trained to strike on the roof bolts and to listen for shots, but no one was listening.”

ampbell compared the federal mine agency’s response to that of the social disaster on the Gulf Coast. “Today MSHA is not working. It failed us just like FEMA failed Hurricane Katrina victims,” she said.

Paid consultants who were part of the company investigation dismissed the possibility of the explosion being caused by equipment, methane gas buildup, sparks from a battery or coal dust, or roof falls. Thomas Novak, a professor, claimed it was most likely cause by lightning. He speculated that charged particles from a lightning strike some two miles from the mine made their way by air across a river, charged nearby power lines leading into the mine, continued along the conveyor system, up the conveyor hangers, following a wire mesh along the roof, jumping an eight-foot gap in the mesh by entering the rock face, and then inexplicably penetrated the walls of a sealed area behind which methane gas had accumulated.

Sarah Bailey, daughter of miner George Junior Hamner, citing a long list of unsafe conditions in the mine, called the report “unbelievable.” Asked by UMWA president Roberts if he knew of any other case of lightning causing a mine explosion, Novak said he did not.

Family member John Helms asked about the company’s decision to ignore a carbon monoxide warning light that lit up on a dispatcher’s computer board just before the crew entered the mine. Federal regulations require that after such an alarm, miners are to be evacuated to a safe distance until it can be determined that it is safe to work.

“Would these miners be alive today if you had evacuated them?” Helms asked.

“The dispatcher did what he was supposed to do,” ICG vice president Sam Kitts replied. He said the dispatcher determined through a test on his board that the alarm was a malfunction. He could not answer how that test is conducted.  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home