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Tragic Ending in West Virginia Coal Mine

Aired January 4, 2006 - 8:59   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: A tragic ending in a West Virginia coal mine. Twelve miners are dead, their families angry after being given false hope.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're Christian people ourselves. We have got -- some of us is right down to saying that we don't even know if there is a lord anymore. We had a miracle, and it was taken away from us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody is stunned right now. Everybody's stunned and sick to their stomach. We feel like we've been lied to. We feel like we've been lied to all along.

S. O'BRIEN (voice over): Mine officials blame miscommunication. Now we all wait for answers.

BEN HATFIELD, PRESIDENT, INTERNATIONAL COAL GROUP: It's a very emotional time. The employees' families are grief-stricken and, frankly, angry. And I'm not surprised.

S. O'BRIEN: The sole survivor in critical condition, clinging to life.

GOV. JOE MANCHIN (D), WEST VIRGINIA: We knew we had odds stacked against us. I kept saying I believe in miracles, I'm praying for a miracle. We received one miracle. I was wanting 13 miracles.


S. O'BRIEN: Welcome, everybody. We are coming to you with an extended version of AMERICAN MORNING this morning and a split show, reporting from New York this morning, and also Sago, in West Virginia, where Miles is bringing us up to speed on the families' reaction.

And what a horrible, horrible night for them to go from euphoria, Miles, to the lowest of the lows. It's impossible to imagine, really.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, good morning, Soledad.

I'm sorry. I almost thought I was going to get hit by that car there.

We're here on Sago Road. Just about a half a mile up the road is the mine, Sago Mine number one. A recovery operation under way there as we speak. The bodies of 12 miners still beneath the surface going to be brought up this morning. That process will continue.

The hope was for a short period of time right around midnight that it was just the opposite scenario, that there would be 12 survivors. But it's just the opposite case.

Church bells rang here at Sago Baptist Church. Hymns were sung, people embracing each other. People absolutely euphoric at the prospect that word leaked out from the command center based on a miscommunication from a rescue worker some 260 feet below the surface.

This morning it is a dark and damp morning here in the hills of West Virginia. And the church is virtually empty, trash being cleared away. Some 500 people were there.

Within three hours after getting that bit of uplifting news which turned out to be false, the real word came in that, in fact, 12 had died. One sole survivor being treated this morning in a Morgantown hospital. His condition, all things considered, appears to be OK, but certainly not out of the woods yet, still considered in critical condition.

Randal McCloy, 27 years old, a father of two young children, who every time he left to go to work kissed his wife and said, "God is with us as we go beneath these hills," apparently gods was with him during that long ordeal, some 41 hours before he was discovered, along with 11 others, huddled behind a makeshift barricade, hoping against hope to keep that deadly carbon monoxide out of their lungs.

For the others it was too late, 11 of them dying. Subsequent -- unclear exactly how long they survived. One was killed instantly by the explosion.

This morning, lots of questions about the whole scenario, how it happened, what can be done to prevent the situation in the future, and how this miscommunication could have happened, how people could have been given such false hope for so long, and how it led to such a crushing sense of despair within a very short period of time.

CNN's Adaora Udoji is at the mine. As we say, just up the road from here. She's been watching this story for us all throughout the night.

Adaora, good morning.


An utterly devastating end that the mining company, International Coal Group, the CEO of that mining company which owns the Sago mine -- Sago mines, says it was a miscommunication between rescue workers in the mineshaft and people at the command center, that there was some dialogue between the two and that the people in the command centers walked away believing that 12 out of 13 miners had survived.

That news quickly spread like wildfire, as we've been saying all morning, to the families who were incredibly relieved and happy and thrilled. And there was a tremendous amount of celebration until they learned the truth. And the CEO, Ben Hatfield, this is how he described it.


HATFIELD: There was a miscommunication, and I don't know plan -- I don't know really on whose end it was, but there was a miscommunication that resulted in the command center believing they were told that there were 12 survivors. And apparently, the intention on the part of the rescue teams was to confirm that they had 12 individuals and they were at that point checking vital signs, trying to determine who was a survivor and who wasn't. And that was essentially a communication, it was an incomplete evaluation at the point that it went to the command center.


UDOJI: Earlier this morning, the CEO, Ben Hatfield, that we just heard from said that the company had never publicly announced that 12 out of 13 miners had survived, but CNN has talked to family members who say that he personally spoke to them, telling them that there were those survivors and that those survivors were going to be brought to the church so that they could be reunited with their families.

So clearly, one major reason that triggered so much angst and outrage and anger by the family. We're hoping to get more answers this morning, Miles, because the executives from the company are to hold a news conference some time this morning -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Adaora Udoji, who is over at the command post and the mine itself. And we'll be watching that briefing as it happens. Lots of questions for them on just how this occurred.

The best we can piece together here is that that incomplete information from the command post, the possibility that 12 might have been alive, prompted someone to make a cell phone call. That call was received here at that church where some 500 family members were, and within an instant it had spread like wildfire.

Subsequent to that, further information coming from someone who said that they might be walking in the door any minute now. Further buttressing that belief that they were all alive.

All of that, of course, being dashed. And among the questions being asked is, what did the governor's office do to perhaps make this story confirmed or confirm this story for reporters?

"USA Today" with a headlines, kind of a "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline, along with a lot of other East Coast newspapers, saying that the miners, in fact, were alive, has this quote: "Governor Joe Manchin was the one to tell the families the good news. After he did, the bells of the Sago Baptist Church began ringing and people ran outside screaming and crying."

That's written by "USA Today" without a direct quote or attribution to any specific person on the governor's staff. I asked the governor a little while ago if he could explain if someone from his office had, in fact, confirmed all this.


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, my people were 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 -- to the portal, if you will, and -- because we had not heard anything.

So I don't know how that happened. I really don't. I'm not going to blame people, I really am not.


M. O'BRIEN: Governor Manchin, who lost an uncle in 1968 in a bad mine explosion and accident in West Virginia, said he vowed to not withhold information from people should there ever been a disaster of this nature. In this case, as it turns out, perhaps too much information, erroneous information got into the hands of these people, and that's what led to a tremendous and painful emotional roller- coaster -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: That still begs the question, though, Miles, when the error was discovered, regardless of who was at fault -- and I'm not sure we're ever going to really know who the person was who spread this rumor -- but there was 20 minutes later, the mining executives had made it clear that they were aware that a mistake had been made, and a mistake had been transmitted to these grieving family members who are now overjoyed.

It begs the question, why wait three hours before you -- you inform them of the bad news? And, in fact, we've got new pictures now into CNN of what it looked like inside the church when the executives came to the podium to deliver this terrible news.

Now keep in mind, people now for three hours have believed that their loved one had survived, impossibly, certainly, but believed that they had survived. Here's what it looked like inside the church.

The church bells were ringing in the moments after the good news was reported. That happened about 11:48 p.m. People were screaming, as we heard, and cheering as they ran from the church. And as we've heard many times, they described this spreading like wildfire when the good news was first delivered.

And so imagine -- and you can see here the ambulances lined up, because they're expecting 12 miners to come out, maybe needing some kind of medical assistance and some kind of help. And then you can sense the turn as, in fact, the good news is only bad news, that there's only been one survivor.

And our affiliate, WCHS, giving this videotape to us this morning, where it becomes clear that the news is -- is just bad news.

The governor of West Virginia says it's still a miracle, the one survival -- survivor, Randal McCloy. He is in critical condition this morning. He was taken by ambulance about 50 miles north of Sago to Morgantown and the West Virginia Memorial Hospital.

Joe Johns is there for us live with an update on his condition.

Hey, Joe. Good morning.

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Soledad.

Critical but stable is the word from the hospital here, at least right now. Randal, we are told, is responding to stimuli, breathing on his own. He has a partially-collapsed lung; however, we are told there is no evidence of brain damage.

The director of the trauma center here at West Virginia University Hospital gave a news conference just a little while ago.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The degree of dehydration that he suffered, the prolonged immobility that he obviously suffered, have both played significantly and are -- are causing him to remain in critical shape. We have -- we have all the hopes that he will continue to improve as we aggressively manage him and -- which is what we're doing in our intensive care unit.


JOHNS: Husband, father of two, 27 years old. His family is here. Of course, one of the big questions is, how long might it be before he could be revived to the point certainly where he could talk to some authorities and fill them in on what he knows about what happened in that mine?

Absolutely no word on that, of course, right now. The doctors focused on trying to make his recovery a smooth recovery.

Back to you -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Joe. The doctor certainly sounding hopeful there.

Joe Johns for us this morning.

Joe, thanks.

Going to monitor the situation. Doctors have said, in fact, that they might wake him up, bring him out of his sedation either today or tomorrow.

Other stories making news this morning. Let's get right to Kelly Wallace. She's helping us out.

Hey, Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN ANCHOR: Hello again, Soledad.

There has been a suicide bombing right in the middle of a funeral procession in Iraq. Officials say a suicide bomber hid among the crowds of mourners, then killed himself and nearly 40 others. The attack took place near Baquba. Dozens of people are wounded.

Iraq is expected to top the agenda as President Bush heads to the Pentagon in just a short while. The president will be getting a briefing from top commanders and will then make a statement on the war on terror. CNN, of course, will bring you the president's comments as soon as we have them. And those remarks expected about two hours from now.

The president also expected to comment on the coal mine tragedy in West Virginia.

A former top Washington lobbyist is due in a Florida courtroom 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 congressional aides. We'll look more into the political implications of all of this in the next half-hour.

And some major snowfall in the Sierra Nevadas, triggering some avalanches. Heavy snow caused traffic to back up along some major highways. Parts of the Sierras have reported up to three feet of snow so far this week.

Are they going to get more of the white stuff? Bonnie Schneider at the CNN Center in Atlanta.


M. O'BRIEN: Coming up on the program, we will check in with author, rocket scientist, and son of a coal miner, Homer Hickam, the man who wrote the story which gave you the movie "October Sky." We'll ask him how the entire fabric of this area is affected by this tragedy.

Stay with us for more.


S. O'BRIEN: One cannot imagine just how emotionally difficult it has been for the families of the miners. Here's a look at the ups and terrible downs of the last 12 hours.

And we begin with Anderson Cooper learning that the miners were alive and we end with the tragic news that only one man is pulled from the mine alive.


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We have some breaking news. We do not know exactly what is going on here in Upshur County. They are ringing the bells of the church. This is the first time that has occurred.

We heard some shouting over at the church.

You're a friend of Terry Helms. Terry was -- what have you heard?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They just come out of the mine, said we got 12 alive. That's good news.

COOPER: Where did you -- who told you that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They just come out of the mines and sent an official down, said we got 12 alive.

COOPER: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Charlie -- Charlie, we've got to -- come back to us.

Wait, wait, wait, come here. What's happening?

LYNETTE ROBY, WITNESSED DEATH ANNOUNCEMENT: There's only one -- there's only one made it out alive. And I think the name was Randal. The governor's in there, and this big in charge CEO of the mine is apologizing. And it's all -- they did nothing but -- I don't know how this information could come out that people were alive.

COOPER: Where have...

ROBY: There's only one person alive and he's en route to the hospital.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody is stunned right now. Everybody's stunned and sickened to their stomach. We feel like we've been lied to. We feel like we've been lied to all along.

I don't even know if the governor knew the truth or not. I think he was here, I think that he's done everything he could. And I don't even know if they told him the truth or not.

HATFIELD: What happened is that through stray cell phone conversations, it appears that this miscommunication from the rescue team underground to the command center was picked up by various people that simply overheard a conversation, was relayed through cell phone communications without our ever having made a release. International Coal Group never made any release about all 12 of the miners being -- being alive and well.

MANCHIN: It had to be a miscommunication, misinterpretation, something. I don't think that anyone would have said if something was different than what they found.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Finally they come. Mr. Hatfield, the CEO of the mines, he'd say he didn't know nothing. Finally, he come up and he said they was all living.

He even give us the directions of how he was bringing them in, he was going to take the emergency car, go up and get them. He was going to bring them to the church, to the families. Not only my family, but all families.

And he was supposed to come back within an hour. He come back three hours later with the news that they're gone, that there is no survivors. We want to know why and how people can get by with this.


S. O'BRIEN: Many people want to know why and how that information got out the way it did.

Let's get right back to Miles, who is right outside the mine today.

M. O'BRIEN: Thanks very much, Soledad.

When you get the morning paper, if you haven't gotten it already, there's a good likelihood the headline on it will be in the -- sort of the "Dewey Defeats Truman" category, something referencing the fact that 12 of the 13 miners survived. Of course that isn't the case. But this story crested right as those newspapers on the East Coast were being put to bed. This whole false hope notion was at its zenith at that point.

Look at "The New York Times." Front page story above the fold, headline talking about the 12 being rescued alive after some 41 hours beneath the surface of the earth. And in it, you can get a sense of how reporters could be led astray on this, because sources who you would have no reason to discount or not trust in this case, on the record saying things like this...

"Joe Thornton, the deputy secretary for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, said this: 'The rescued miners were being examined at the mine shortly before midnight and would soon be taken to nearby hospitals.'" A quote from him. "Mr. Thornton also said he did not know details of their medical condition."

So while this may have begun with a bad radio communication, or in this case, it probably would have been a landline communication with a rescuer wearing a breathing apparatus underground, on a microphone that was probably shoddy in an echoey (ph) situation, all kinds of room for error there, misinterpreted in the command post. Somebody says, oh my gosh, they're all alive, picks up a cell phone, a phone call goes right into that Baptist church, and off you go with the rumor.

And it became, I think, a self-fulfilling prophecy as time went on, people cross-checking each other all based on an initial rumor. So this story is a story that kind of unfolded in an unfortunate way for all of us, but in particular, just heartbreaking kind of thing for the families here in Upshur County, West Virginia -- Soledad. S. O'BRIEN: That description, Miles, certainly explains potentially how the rumor may have started. It does not explain, though, why nobody stopped the rumor, those who knew better, those who knew that that rumor was inaccurate.

Maybe not knowing all the details, but knew that it was wrong within 20 minutes of that news, waited three hours before the families got the official notification. Many questions about that we certainly will expect.

We're going to take a short break. Ahead this morning, an update on the lone survivor in this tragedy. He is 27-year-old Randal McCloy. How did he make it out when others could not?

Dr. Sanjay Gupta is going to talk about his condition and much more ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


S. O'BRIEN: One glimmer of good news in all of this tragedy is the survivor, 27-year-old Randal McCloy, with two small children. We spoke to his wife yesterday on the air as she clutched a teddy bear and told us how anxious she was for his safe return. He has survived the mining accident.

Let's get right to medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

Sanjay, good morning.

You've been listening to the updates and the advisories from both hospitals, the smaller one where Randal McCloy was brought first, and then of course the trauma center where the most recent update came from. What do you make of what they're telling us?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SR. MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Optimistic, actually, Soledad. And I wouldn't have said that a few hours ago, but certainly after listening to this most recent report from the doctor just a little bit ago, it sounds optimistic.

It sounds like he had significant problems because he was dehydrated, he had been immobilized for 40 hours, the sort of things that you would expect. But he did not seem to have a significant brain injury, at least not on this brain scan initially. And he did have high levels of carbon monoxide, but it seems like it's easily treatable.

Also, he came in moving everything. And he was moaning a bit. Those are actually good signs as well. He does have a collapsed lung, which is fairly easily treatable.

I will say this, though, Soledad, you've got to be a little bit measured here. He is still sedated. Until he wakes up, is able to communicate in some way, until it is clear that he's not had any kind of stroke or any other injury, which can sometimes happen with carbon monoxide poisoning, he's not out of the woods. But I think I'm encouraged at least by the recent doctor's most recent report -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: The brain scan is giving you some -- good sense, even though it's not really conclusive at this point since he hasn't been woken up or, you know, taken off his sedation.

Do you think, Sanjay, there's any information that we can glean from his condition that would give us information about what -- what caused the death of the other miners? Is it the carbon monoxide level at all, do you think?

GUPTA: Yes, I think so. It's starting to make a little bit more sense, because earlier they said that this gentleman, Mr. McCloy, did not have any elevated carbon monoxide levels at all. We find that that, in fact, is not true. He did have elevated carbon monoxide levels.

The reason that was important, Soledad, is because I was thinking, if he didn't have elevated carbon monoxide levels, he must be debilitated because of a concussive (ph) injury from the explosion. But that seems less likely now, and it seems to all point more towards the carbon monoxide, more so than anything else, which would make sense as well in the sense that, you know, at least some of the miners built this barricade and they had some -- were able to carry out some activity after the explosion.

So the explosion may not have been as serious or as devastating to the individuals at that time as maybe was originally thought -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, we're all certainly hoping for a full recovery for Randal McCloy, because he may be the only one who can really fill in the gaps and tell eventually investigators what happened.


S. O'BRIEN: Sanjay, thanks, as always.

GUPTA: Thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: We're going to take a short break. We're back in just a moment.



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