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Tragedy at Sago Mine in West Virginia

Aired January 4, 2006 - 09:32   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: The Sago Baptist on the morning after. In the overnight hours, it was a scene of amazing emotion from great euphoria all the way down to despair all in the span of less than three hours. The folks there, some 500 of them, crowding into that church, friends and family members of those 13 trapped miners, first under the impression based on some bad information which got out of the command post near the mine, that 12 of the 13 were alive.
Then in about three hours' time, the word came that that was erroneous, and in fact own one had survived. It was a scene of anger and despair. There was even some concern about a shoving match developing that people's hopes that their loved ones would be walking in any moment were completely dashed.

And of the big questions we've had all morning is why did it take them so long? The people at the command post knew within 20 minutes that they had let out some bad information. It took them three hours to get the word out that, in fact, they had made a mistake. They said they were trying to get the accurate information, how many alive, and how many dead. But in the very least, these people here would like to know why they didn't just offer up some sort of caution to keep their emotions in check here -- Soledad.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Miles, thanks.

As you well know, President Bush is going to talk about the mine tragedy when he speaks from the Pentagon in just about two hours.

Let's get right to Suzanne Malveaux. She's live at the White House with a preview.

Suzanne, good morning to you.

What do we expect to hear from the president? And what's been the official reaction from there?

SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Soledad, as you know, President Bush was keeping up with the developments from yesterday. He'd been briefed yesterday on this and throughout the day, and of course this morning hearing the tragic news in all of this, he will begin his remarks by expressing his condolences. We heard from the press secretary this morning, who essentially gave the administration's reaction here, saying that "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the families and entire community there in West Virginia. Our prayers with the surviving miner who was rescued, and we express our deepest appreciation for the courageous and compassionate efforts the rescue team who put their lives on line." It was just yesterday President Bush reached out to the governor of West Virginia, also reached out when it came to those federal resources to try to go ahead and maintain that rescue effort. This through the Mine Safety and Health Administration. That is under the Labor Department. They have put out a statement this morning as well. They say that there is going to be a full investigation behind the explosion, but also a key point here is the fact they're going to be investigation how that information was disseminated on the condition of the miners. That, of course, the tragedy, the additional tragedy to all of this and their families -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Certainly it does seems that that just compounded what was a horrible, horrible circumstance stance, almost like sticking the dagger in and twisting it in the backs of all those family member whose were so hopeful and overjoyed, then and just brought to the lowest of lows. Suzanne, thank you for the update. We're expecting to hear, of course, as we mentioned, in just about two hours from the president.

Let's get right back to Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you, Soledad. I think our next guest probably does in fact have a unique resume. He is a very successful author. He is a rocket scientist. He is the son of a coal miner. And briefly, he was a coal miner himself. Joining us now to give us some insight into what life is like in a West Virginia coal town, originally of Coal Wood, West Virginia, Homer Hickam.

Homer, good to have you with us this morning.

Your heart must just go out to these people here.

HOMER HICKAM, AUTHOR, "WE ARE NOT AFRAID": Yes, Miles, we've been on an absolute roller coaster all evening, last night, watching all this development. And you know, there was euphoria for a while, and then it was all dashed. And you know, your heart goes out to these coal miner families. I mean, they're strong and they're resilient, but that was, that's going to be a bitter pill, and it's going to take them a while to get over this.

But let me tell you, you know, these people really are strong, and this anger that they feel right now is soon going to turn to grief, and then I think it's going to turn to pride. Because these men, they did as they were trained to do. From all the evidence, they went toward the clear air, they set up their curtains, then they waited to be rescued. So I think that we're going to -- between all the recriminations we're going to find evidence that there's reasons for these families to be very proud of their men.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, would that they could have gotten to them a little sooner, Homer, because that's the thing that seems most tragic about this, is that they survived that initial explosion, did everything they were supposed to do, and yet, except for one, didn't make it out.

You know, you write extensively, especially in your book, "Rocket Boys," which also became the movie "October Sky," about the feelings of being sort of trapped this world of coal mining, because it is a good-paying job for someone with limited education.

Do you think the fact that people kind of feel trapped in this world, couple that with the fear and the danger, it's kind of an emotional mix, isn't it?

HICKAM: Well, you know, in Coal Wood, the Coal Wood was dying, and so the families, the parents wanted all their kids to get out. But coal mining is also a way of life in these communities that still have coal mines. And the people want to stay in these mountains. They love West Virginia. They love where they live. And after a while, coal mining, frankly, gets into your blood. If you're a coal miner, you spend years learning ho to you mine coal. This is not a simple industry. It's a very complex industry. These are not pick- and-shovel guys. These are guys that are very technically proficient. They're very well trained. For the most part, they actually love what they do. So they could go somewhere else, work in a big box store, a Wal-Mart or something, but they want to stay there. They love mining coal, but you know, these things -- you know, last year, we had 22 coal mining deaths in this country. That's 22 too many. But that's compared to over 5,000 that were killed in China doing the exact, mining the same type of coal. So we have learned some lessons here. And coal mining is a relatively safe industry considering what it does.

M. O'BRIEN: You know, there is this wonderful scene in the movie "October Sky." It's your story, of course. It's in the book as well, about going down into the dark, into that shaft. You know, before dawn, and the work that is done, and you really get a sense of how difficult, and dangerous and really, frankly, scary it is.

HICKAM: Well, it's intimidating at first. But after a while, you learn your way around there. I mean, the roof is four or five feet high. You tend to bounce your head off that roof an awful lot at first, but then you start learning how everything works. It's like a symphony. Everything comes together. And my dad was just so proud of every day of sending his men down and following them in and making sure that that symphony all came together, was all coordinated. And when you see that really working. When the continuous miner is grinding away at the face, and the shuttle cars are coming in and out, and the conveyor belts are rolling, and the people are -- and the miners putting up their headers and the timbers, and everything is working together, and the ventilating curtains and so on, it is actually a very beautiful thing to see.

M. O'BRIEN: Interesting. A beautiful thing. Just quickly, do you have some words for the families this morning?

HICKAM: Well, my heart, my prayers go out to them. Listen, I don't mean to hawk a book here. I don't have to. My books sell well enough. But I wrote a book based on the philosophy of coal miners and coal mining families after 9/11, to kind of buck up the people in the country. It's called "We Are Not Afraid," and it has the axioms of these coal mining families, how they live, how they get through every day without fear, and that we're proud of who we are, we stand up for what we believe, we keep our families together, and we trust in God, but rely on ourselves. This is what these families are going to use. That philosophy is going to get them through. I'm proud of them. West Virginians, whether we live in the state or not, we are forever West Virginians. We love our state and we love our people.

M. O'BRIEN: Homer Hickam, good words, good philosophy, joining us from Huntsville, but his heart still here in West Virginia. Thanks very much.



S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, they were fathers, and husbands, and brothers and sons. We remember the lives of the men who died in the tragedy at the Sago mine. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. We're back right after this short break.


S. O'BRIEN: "CNN LIVE TODAY" is coming up. Daryn has got that. Daryn, obviously many questions in the wake of this terrible tragedy we've been reporting.

What are you working on?

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, Soledad, our coverage will continue. We do have a busy morning ahead. We continue to follow the developing story, the tragedy of the Sago mine, and we hope to hear more from the mine owner in the next hour, on what led to this horrible misunderstanding over the fate of the trapped miners.

Also President Bush visits the Pentagon. He's doing that right now. Mr. Bush will then give us a progress report on the war on terror. We of course will bring that to you live. All ahead in about the next 10 minutes.

Back to you.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Daryn, thanks.

Ahead this morning, honoring the men who died in that terrible tragedy at Sago mine and the lives they left behind. We've got that up next.

Stay with us.


M. O'BRIEN: Hello, I'm Miles O'Brien. We're live in Upshur County, West Virginia, have been all morning. This on the morning after the terrible news that 12 of the 13 trapped miners in the Sago No. 1 mine in fact died subsequent to that explosion that occurred more than 48 hours ago now.

This is the Sago Baptist Church. This became the center of activity, a center of emotion, a center of ultimately grief as friends and family members numbering upwards of 500 gathered here all throughout this ordeal and last night went through this wild rollercoaster. First getting the mistaken information that 12 of those miners were alive and would soon be walking through those doors there, and then just about three hours later, just the opposite. Only one survivor, 12 of them dead.

Just a little while ago, I spoke to one of the people who was here through this entire ordeal. His name is John Casto and it's quite a story he tells.


JOHN CASTO, FRIEND OF MINERS: Well, it was a terrible thing for the loved ones because they understood that there was 12 of them alive under there, and they was pretty sure they knew which one was dead. And we rejoiced for the ones that was alive and we mourned for the one that was lost, supposedly.

And we was told that the ambulance would go over and pick them up and they would bring them over and they would feed them and they would bring them through the hallway and down the hallway and into the church and the immediate family would talk to them. They would rejoice with them when they got there, and then the friends could rejoice.

And we waited and waited. And it must have been three and a half hours. But the loved ones and the family was out on the porch wrapped in blankets, awaiting for their fathers or their brothers to come up and just give them a hug. Because that's what we was told, they was alive. And when we began to see the black vehicles come up through there and the state police and they all come in there, we still thought they was alive. We still was a'looking for them to come through the door.


M. O'BRIEN: Here's the real rub. About 20 minutes after that rumor got started, after that phone call from the command post, which came to the Baptist church, 20 minutes later in that command post, they realized that there was a mistake, that that communication from underground to them was misinterpreted for whatever reason.

But it wasn't until, as you just heard, about three hours after all of that, that the word got through here. The people at the mining company say they were trying to get the straight story, trying to figure out just who was alive and who was dead. But the fact is it was a horrific three hours, Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, no question about that. You know, Miles, we've been talking all morning about the numbers; 12 dead, one survivor. But we want to share with you the names. And so we will list for you all of the miners who were in that mine that day.

Relatives say in fact that the coal mining was the only job that Marty Bennett ever had. The 50-year-old's son also worked at the Sago mine. His brother-in-law was one of the lucky men who escaped the mine right after the explosion.

Jim Bennett was a long-time veteran of the mine, 61 years old. Bennett's sister said he was scheduled to retire in April.

Jerry Groves. He'd hoped, too, to retire soon. The 57-year-old miner had been working underground for three decades. His father and his grandfather before him were also coal miners.

Terry Helms had been working in the mines since he was 15 years old. He wouldn't let his son, though, follow in this footsteps. He was 50 years old, and as the fire boss, was the first man into that mine on Monday morning.

Twenty-eight-year-old David Lewis, relatively new to the mines. He'd gone to work underground about two and a half years ago. His wife was trying to get her master's degree. She said they thought it was a good way to make a living until they found something different to do.

Twenty-seven-year-old Randal McCloy, you've heard his name. He is the sole survivor in the group. His wife Anna (ph) spoke to us yesterday. Randal wanted to quit mining. He said the money, though, was just too good.

Martin Toler, mine foreman, 50-year-old, had been in the mines most of his life. His son joined him in the mines for about four years.

Fifty-nine-year-old Fred Ware, Jr., coal miner for about six years. He told his long-time fiancee that he expected that one day he would die in the mines. They were supposed to be married on this Valentine's Day.

We're going to take a short break. We're back in just a moment.



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