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Tragedy at Sago Mine

Aired January 4, 2006 - 06:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: A stunning turn of events in Sago, West Virginia, one person clinging to life, one of those 13 miners clinging to life, the sole survivor. And this after families had celebrated the fact that perhaps a dozen of them had survived.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The initial report from the rescue team to the command center indicated multiple survivors, but that information proved to be a miscommunication.



GOV. JOE MANCHIN, WEST VIRGINIA: We have one miracle. We're clinging to 1 miracle when we were hoping for 13. So with that, we're very thankful. And we're going to do everything to support the families and do whatever we can to comfort them.


M. O'BRIEN: So many questions, so much anger, so much grief here in Sago, West Virginia on this morning now 48 hours since that tremendous underground explosion which caused this accident and which has led to the deaths of 12 of those 13 miners. One of them still alive, clinging to life in a hospital, the exact extent of his injuries still unclear to us right now.

But in the overnight hours, just a tremendous turn of events as first news was reported that 12 were alive. And then three hours later, the news came out that that was a horribly wrong report and one person, Randal McCloy, 27 years old, three years in the mines, has in fact survived. He among the 12 men who survived the initial explosion having barricaded themselves and protecting themselves, it is presumed, at least for some time, against the carbon monoxide which impregnated the air inside that museum (ph).

It's an amazing turn of events. It's stunning. And, quite frankly, rather horrific for the families who have to contend with the grief as it is. But on top of that, have to deal with the fact that for three hours they were expecting them at any moment to walk in the door of the Sago Baptist Church where they had gathered together to try to shore each other up.

Bells rung here in celebration, hymns were sung in celebration, and now those same family members, who had shared in that joy, are angry and would like some answers from the mine, from the governor's office, from the media for that matter. As one of them put it to me, we're angry at everybody this morning -- Soledad.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Emotions certainly, Miles, that they can understand.

Good morning, everybody. Obviously a split show this morning as we cover this breaking news coming to us.

Questions today are numerous, as Miles has mentioned. The miscommunication that he spoke about, where exactly did that miscommunication come from? Also, why was that miscommunication allowed to circulate for three hours when actually mine officials knew within about 20 minutes that that information was wrong in some way, shape or form, even if they didn't have conclusive numbers about the dead and injured? Within 20 minutes, they were aware that the euphoria was in some way misplaced.

Also, what exactly happened to these 13 men underground? They were able to get off the vehicle that they were traveling in, but what exactly happened to them? The person who may hold the key to that answer is Randal McCloy, the only survivor. And why did Randal McCloy survive? Why was this 27-year-old, relatively, compared to some of the men he was working with, relatively inexperienced miner, able to survive where 12 other men were not? All these questions and much more.

And finally, maybe the most important question, what caused the initial explosion that caused this mine accident in the first place? The last 48 hours, rather, clearly roller coaster for emotions for family and friends of the miners.

We'll take a look now at how it all played out on the clock.

Six thirty-one a.m. on Monday, you might recall, an explosion caused a power outage at the Sago Mine. Two crews enter the mine. They're trying to resume production after the holiday. All 13 members of the first crew reported trapped at about 13,000 feet into the mine. The mine superintendent says there are dangerous levels of carbon monoxide at just about 9,000 feet. It's not good information.

Five p.m. on Monday, drilling crews start arriving. And 51 minutes later, at 5:51 a.m., a rescue team finally enters the mine.

Four thirty a.m. on Tuesday, workers begin drilling a hole. They are trying to provide fresh air for the miners some 260 feet beneath the surface. A second hole is begun just about two-and-a-half hours later. They're going to try to determine with that hole the air quality inside.

Seven forty-two a.m., same day, Tuesday, mine officials say a camera that's been dropped into one of the holes reveals no survivors. They also say there's bad news, the air quality test very discouraging because the levels of carbon monoxide triple what's survivable for just 15 minutes. Five p.m. on Tuesday, the news seems to be getting worse, the president of the International Coal Group says rescue teams are 1,000 to 2,000 feet from where the miners are believed trapped.

Nine ten p.m. on Tuesday, this is late last night, ICG President Ben Hatfield announces that in fact the body of one miner has been found in a mine car.

Eleven fifty-three p.m. on Tuesday, suddenly everything changes, church bells begin ringing and there are reports in fact that 12 of the miners are alive.

And then 2:30 a.m. this morning, company officials tell the families, who are now holed up at this Baptist church, that there was a miscommunication between the rescue crews and the command center or that some information was overheard and misinterpreted. And that, in fact, the information that they have been hearing and believing for the last three hours is in fact wrong, that there is only one survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., that 12 miners are dead.

Let's go back to Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad, as you've been saying, there's just this tremendous anger here, which is a residual effect of that three-hour period when these people fully expected to see their loved ones, see those men walk in the door and be reunited. That is obviously not going to happen.

And in addition to many questions about that miscommunication, there are of course questions about the source of the accident in the first place, what sparked it, why it happened and how long they were in fact able to survive beneath the surface? Randal McCloy clinging to life now. If he's able to tell this story some day soon will shed a lot of light on that. But in the meantime, there will be lots of questions and an ongoing investigation into this accident.

CNN's Adaora Udoji is at the mine. It's about a half mile down the road from where I stand right now where we're still trying to piece together and still have a lot of blanks, quite frankly, in what has happened -- Adaora.

ADAORA UDOJI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Terrible and tragic miscommunications, Miles. The CEO of the International Coal Group, that is the company that owns the Sago Mine here in West Virginia, essentially he said that rescue workers talking to the command center, talking to people in the command center, there was some miscommunication.

The people in the command center, they understood that the rescue workers were saying 12 of the 13 trapped miners had survived. That was over some lines. There was a speakerphone. All of those people understood that.

The company CEO, Ben Hatfield, says the company never officially told the family members that the miners, those 12 miners, had survived. Although we have talked to, CNN has talked to family members who say that is not the case. That they were personally told by Mr. Hatfield that those 12 out of 13 miners had survived. And in fact they are saying they were told that they were going to be reunited with those miners. This happening sometime around midnight.

It was two-and-a-half, three hours later that those families found out that in fact the miners, 13 of the miners, 12, I'm sorry, of the miners had passed.

But Governor Joe Manchin describes the absolute euphoria and joy of the cheers of joy, as he said it, the sea of jubilation that took place when the families thought those 12 miners had survived.


MANCHIN: And I heard a big loud screaming and clapping and everything. And we didn't know what went on. And I asked my security people with me, and I said what is happening? And they didn't know because we hadn't heard anything.

And then we went in the room and we heard that, you know, everyone was saying that they found them and they were ecstatic. And I asked our people again, I said do we have any confirmation on anything? And they said no, we don't.


UDOJI: That was at midnight, again, Miles, just to take a look at that timeline when family members thought the miners had survived, the vast majority of the miners had survived. It was two-and-a-half, three hours later when company executives told them that wasn't the case.

And that triggers a whole lot of questions about why family members were not corrected earlier. Because apparently company officials knew that something was wrong far earlier than when they told the families. So lots of questions here in West Virginia -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Adaora, it's interesting, in particular, in the governor's case, in 1968, he lost his uncle in a mining accident. Everybody around here remembers because so many laws were changed in the wake of it. And he said that he always vowed that he would not allow people to be kept in the dark as they were in 1968 over what was happening. And here in this case a lot of information was put out, but unfortunately bad information. So there's some terrible irony to all this, isn't there?

UDOJI: No, there's no question. And here's an interesting point, Miles. The company has been so consistent with news conferences. I mean they have been coming you know every two, three, four hours you know informing folks of what's going on, first talking to the family, but then coming to the media. And so for there to be this absolute snafu at the end of it is ironic.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes.

Adaora Udoji, thanks very much.

And not only was this a terrible three hours, it was ill-timed in this respect, it was just as all the East Coast newspapers, some of the national newspapers, were putting their editions to bed. And so what you're going to see on your newsstands maybe in your hometown as you go to work today is this.

The "USA Today," of course a national newspaper, huge circulation all over the country, 12 miners found alive is the headline in a sort of Dewey defeats Truman kind of headline. And about the third paragraph down, you can't see it here in that graphic, but what it says is that this was confirmed by Governor Manchin's office.

A little while ago, I spoke to the governor about that and asked him if that was the case.


M. O'BRIEN: Governor, this morning on the front page of "USA Today," we just showed it on our air, it says that your office actually confirmed that the 12 were alive. Can you explain that, how that happened?

MANCHIN: I don't know where that -- that did not come from our office. And I don't know how that would have been done, because our people and my people with me there, and we had not, because we wanted to find out what had happened. And that's why I had gone up to the portal, if you will, and -- because we had not heard anything. So I don't know how that happens. I really don't. And I'm not going to blame people. I really am not.


M. O'BRIEN: So a lot of finger pointing as to how this all transpired. But I think there is certainly amid all the finger pointing, and in particular the anger that the families have with the mine company, that initial thought that the 12 would be alive was information which got out very quickly. The bad news that it wasn't so was bottled up. So that is the fact. They did sit on the bad information. They did share the good information quickly. The question is why -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, and it's a very big question today. I'm sure there will be much more exploration of that as the sun starts to rise and people, I think, focus a much bigger light on what's happening here.

The only good news, of course, Miles, in all of this is the news about the survival, Randal McCloy, 27 years old. Been a miner for about three years.

We spoke to his young wife yesterday who talked to us as she clutched a teddy bear. And he told -- she told us how he had fears about working in the mine, but frankly, the money was good. He is in critical condition. He's at West Virginia University Hospital in Morgantown, which is just about 50 miles north of Sago. That's where Joe Johns is for us as well this morning.

Joe, good morning. What can you tell us about his condition?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Soledad, the last report we had was that Randal McCloy was not in the greatest shape. He was listed in critical condition, unconscious, moaning a little bit, we were told, possibly suffering from dehydration. Some other ills they're not so sure about, possibly suffering from shock.

We talked to a doctor down in Upshur County, about 75, 80 miles from here, about 3:00 this morning. She gave reporters a status report on Randal McCloy's condition.


DR. SUSAN LONG, ST. JOSEPH'S HOSPITAL: The patient is critically injured. He's on a ventilator. He is not conscious. OK. We've done some very preliminary testing to try to determine his injuries and nothing major.

In the interest of time here we generally try to stabilize the patient, make sure they are breathing, you know have an airway, have a heartbeat, have a blood pressure, have good I.V. access and no major active bleeding going on or major injuries that require immediate attention, which he did not have.

And once the patient is stabilized, we then transfer the patient to Morgantown where at the level one trauma center they will have much more time and leisure to do things like investigate you know bony fractures or more minor injuries that are not critical.


JOHNS: So this man, Randal McCloy, about 27 years old, a husband, a father, we're told, of two kids, has gone on quite a journey since he was pulled from that mine. First to the hospital in Upshur County, then up the road here to the hospital at the West Virginia University. The only man, perhaps, who can tell authorities what happened in that mine disaster. We don't know much more about his condition. Do hope to learn, perhaps even 8:00 this morning, a bit more from doctors here.

Soledad, back to you.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Joe Johns with an update on the condition of Randal McCloy. He is the only survivor in this horrible accident.

And really what made all of this much worse is that stunning turn of events where there was so much good news. People actually believed for about three hours that 12 of those 13 miners would be found alive and were found alive. And they were preparing for them to physically walk into the church amid celebrations and the bells ringing.

Turned out to be a miscommunication. Those reports were wrong. And in fact, 12 of the 13 miners died. Friends and family of course outraged. How could the information be so wrong? And that investigation ahead.

Stay with us, you're watching AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: Welcome back to a special edition of AMERICAN MORNING. I'm Miles O'Brien reporting live from Sago, West Virginia where a rescue operation has now become a recovery operation. The bodies of 12 miners still at the Sago Mine after the discovery that they did not survive that explosion and its aftermath. The explosion now more than 48 hours ago.

One sole survivor this morning being treated at a hospital in Morgantown, West Virginia. His condition considered critical. His name, Randal McCloy Jr., 27 years old, a miner for only three years, the only survivor of that incident.

And along with the recovery operation are a lot of recriminations about how the information was brought to families, initially told that 12 of the 13 had survived. That information wrong. And for a horrible three-hour period they were led to believe they'd soon be seeing their loved ones. That of course not the case.

We will have coverage all throughout the morning on this.

But in the meantime, let's check some other headlines, see what else is going on in the world.

Let's go to Kelly Wallace in New York -- Kelly.


Yes, some other stories that we are following, and we're beginning overseas in Iraq this morning with word that a car bomb attack has left at least five people dead. An Iraqi police patrol the apparent target of the attack in northern Baghdad. Fifteen others, we understand, are injured.

And Iraq is expected to top the agenda when President Bush visits the Pentagon today. The president will get a briefing from top commanders and then is expected to make a statement on the global war on terror some time in the 11:00 hour. CNN of course will bring you those comments as soon as they become available to us.

A former top Washington lobbyist expected in a Florida courtroom sometime today after a plea deal that could shake things up in Congress. Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges on Tuesday. He has agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in an investigation that could involve some top lawmakers and also some Capitol Hill aides.

Abramoff already faces bank fraud charges in connection with his 2000 purchase of a Florida gambling boat operation. Lawyers say he'll plead guilty to charges related to that later today.

The body of a 13th victim has been found today in the rubble in southern Germany, and that is where there was a collapsed ice skating rink. The roof gave way Monday under the weight of heavy, wet snow with about 50 people inside. At least two people are still believed to be trapped under the rubble, but hopes of finding any survivors are fading.

And parts of the northeast got hit with a big winter storm, the first of the New Year. And this is the scene, or this was the scene in Massachusetts, more than a foot of snow fell in some areas, leading to an extended vacation for some school kids. And the storm caused some scattered power outages.

So what's it going to look like on this Wednesday?

Bonnie Schneider at the CNN Center with the weather update.

Good morning -- Bonnie.



S. O'BRIEN: Bonnie, thanks a lot.

"Financial News Update" now, Carrie Lee's got that. Talking about interest rates.

CARRIE LEE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good news here for Wall Street, Soledad. Yes, minutes were released yesterday from the Federal Reserve's recent December meeting, and bank officials said that the number of increased or additional interest rate increases needed to tame inflation is probably not going to be large. So Wall Street interpreting this as an end to or close to an end to the recent interest rate hike campaign we have seen. We have seen this over the past 18 months.

Wall Street saw a nice rally on this news yesterday. First trading day of the year, the Dow higher by 129 points, the Nasdaq up 38.

And Wall Street likes this for two reasons. Number one, borrowing and spending costs for things like corporate debt and credit cards will stop rising. And also it makes stocks more attractive to bonds. So we certainly saw that yesterday.

A lot of people differ on this a bit, but the general consensus seems to be we could see one more quarter point hike on January 31. Of course that's the last day Fed Chief Alan Greenspan will be at the helm. Then after that, Ben Bernanke steps in. Greenspan at the helm for 18 years.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, wrapping up a long tenure, isn't he?

LEE: Yes, he is.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Carrie, thank you for the update.

LEE: Sure.

S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, more on this breaking news coming to us out of West Virginia that in fact 12 of those 13 trapped miners are dead. Now remember the family members thought they were alive. They got that news just before midnight that 12 had survived. But officials are now blaming that word on a miscommunication. What went wrong? Why did they wait three hours before notifying people they were wrong?

Our split edition of AMERICAN MORNING is back in just a moment.


M. O'BRIEN: The bells of the Sago Baptist Church ringing. This is about midnight last night, or this morning, depending on which way you look at it. The bells offering false hope, as it turns out. At that time, the people inside that church, family members of those 13 trapped miners, were under the impression that 12 of them would be walking in those doors momentarily. They had heard that news.

The information had filtered out from a command post here based on a miscommunication. Word that spread like wildfire, leading to tremendous euphoria, bells ringing, hymns being sung. And then three hours later, this scene dissolved into this, tears and anger and recriminations as it turns out that information was not accurate at all. Twelve of the 13 had perished in that accident now 48 hours ago. One sole survivor clinging to life in a hospital, 27-year-old Randal McCloy.

Many questions remain here in this part of the world this morning, questions about how that information got out, why that false hope was given on top of the fact that they have the tragedy of having lost their loved ones.

Also many questions still remain about what caused that explosion in the first place. Was it in fact that lightning was struck? Had there been a methane buildup? Was there some problem that developed while the mine was closed during the holidays? And how long did those 12 survive after they barricaded themselves after that explosion? Lots of open questions. We're going to try to get as many answers for you as we can. Stay with us.



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