Survivor of W.Va. mine blast pens account for victims' kin

Letter describes smoke, fumes, prayers and sharing of oxygen packs

April 28, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Providing new details about the final desperate hours of the Sago Mine disaster that left 12 miners dead in West Virginia, a letter sent this week by the sole survivor said that at least four of the oxygen masks meant to protect the men from dangerous smoke and fumes did not work.

"The first thing we did was activate our rescuers, as we had been trained," said the letter, which was sent Wednesday by Randal McCloy Jr. to the families of the victims. "At least four of the rescuers did not function. There were not enough rescuers to go around."

Describing how the men were forced to share the few functioning air packs, the letter said that the miners tried to escape but had to retreat because of smoke and fumes.

"We found a sledgehammer, and for a long time, we took turns pounding away," McCloy wrote, describing their frantic efforts to get the attention of rescuers several hundred feet above the trapped miners.

Eventually realizing they were not likely to escape alive, the men recited a "sinner's prayer" and began quietly penning farewell notes to their families, the letter said.

"As my trapped co-workers lost consciousness one by one, the room grew still and I continued to sit and wait, unable to do much else," McCloy wrote in the letter, which was obtained by the Associated Press.

The two-page typed letter offers the most detailed and harrowing picture of what the miners endured after a Jan. 2 explosion trapped them. While the cause of the explosion is unknown, the company has speculated that it was caused by a bolt of lightning that ignited a natural buildup of methane in the mine. State and federal officials are conducting an investigation into the cause of the Sago incident and are expected to release their findings next month.

It has been a bad year for the nation's miners. There have been 26 mining deaths nationwide in only the first four months of the year. Last year at this time, there were 13 nationwide.

It was unclear how McCloy, who was originally described as having not remembered anything from the disaster, could have put together such a detailed chronology of events. McCloy, 27, who has been nicknamed the "miracle miner," survived exposure to toxic fumes for more than 40 hours before rescuers were able to find him and the other men. He remained in a comatose state for several months in a West Virginia hospital and suffered extensive brain damage that affects his ability to hold a conversation.

Stephen P. Goodwin, the lawyer for the McCloy family, verified that the letter came from McCloy and that it had been dictated, but would not say who wrote it down for him. "All I will say is that the letter accurately reflects all of his thoughts and sentiments," Goodwin said.

Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers Union of America, said: "The letter raises some key concerns yet again, as we have done in the past, about these oxygen generation packs."

Smith said it was "absolutely imperative" that federal mine regulators "begin an immediate and nationwide inspection of these units."

In a statement, the mine owner, International Coal Group Inc., declined to comment on the validity of McCloy's recollection. But the company said the miners' air packs, also known as self-contained self-rescue devices, or SCSRs, had been tested by federal investigators.

"ICG was informed that the SCSRs found at the barricade were deployed and showed evidence of use," the statement said. "The federal investigators did not note any defective SCSRs and all appeared to be in working order."

The statement did not indicate whether workers at the mine, which resumed work March 15, were depending on the same equipment.

Dennis B. O'Dell, administrator of occupational health and safety for the mine workers union, said that a typical oxygen pack had a shelf life of about 10 years. Under federal regulations, miners are supposed to visually inspect oxygen packs to see whether the color-coded indicator shows that they are functioning properly.

The statement from the coal company said that all of the oxygen packs had been inspected dai- ly by miners and every 90 days by a mining official.

Dirk Fillpot, a U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration spokesman, said his agency examined all the air packs recovered from the mine after the explosion. Initial tests concluded that the packs were functioning properly, Fillpot said.

He said his agency was "looking at whether the miners received adequate training in the use of their SCSRs."

Currently, each miner is required to carry a unit that would last one hour. "I think this incident will make us consider adding more specific language that requires more frequent and more intensive inspections of these oxygen packs," O'Dell said.

To read McCloy's letter, visit www.baltimoresun.com/mineletter.

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