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West Virginia Mine Explosion Kills 12; Families, Press, Initially Given Wrong Outcome on Deaths; Sole Survivor In Critical Condition, Unconscious

Aired January 4, 2006 - 07:00   ET


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR, AMERICAN MORNING: I'm Miles O'Brien, live in Upshur County, West Virginia. A sad and bitter end to that mining tragedy, that mining accident here, now 48 hours ago. Twelve of the 13 trapped miners are dead. This news coming only hours after the family members have been told that many of them were alive.
ANNA CASTO, COUSIN OF MINER: We cried together like yesterday, when this first happened. But then we got our hopes built up and you just don't do that to people. You just don't do it.

M. O'BRIEN: The company which owns the coal mine is blaming it on a miscommunication. But there are many questions about why the first good news got out so quickly, and then the bad news that so many of them died happened in a less timely way.

One sole survivor in the hospital, 27-year-old Randle McCloy. When he is able and if he is able to tell the story, he will have an amazing story to tell. We'll keep you posted on all of this AMERICAN MORNING.

It was just around midnight when the bells rung on the Sago Baptist Church. You'll recall the Sago Baptist Church had become a nexus, a place for the family members, the friends, the extended family of the mining community here in this little settlement of Sago to gather, try to shore each other up during this terrible ordeal, with 13 men trapped beneath the surface, 260 feet below us after an explosion at the Sago Mine No. 1.

The bells rung after the news came, false news as it turns out, but, at the time, news that everybody believed that 12 of the 13 would soon be walking into that church to hug their loved ones and be reunited. Many of them were even talking about what they would say to those loved ones when they saw them. It was a scene of great euphoria, a scene many people would not have believed given all we had heard the day before about the high levels of carbon monoxide in those mine shafts subsequent to that explosion, which might have been caused or triggered by lightning.

The scene dissolved three hours later to a scene of great sadness. Anderson Cooper on the air when one member of the community rushed out from the church, ran to his position to say, wait, we just heard something dramatic, something just the opposite we've heard. Only one survivor, 27-year-old Randle McCloy; McCloy is in the hospital this morning in critical condition. Still trying to get some more information on him. Meanwhile, all of the family members who have been through the wild roller coaster ride have so many questions for officials on how this was handled -- Soledad.

SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR, AMERICAN MORNING: Oh, no question about that, Miles.

Those questions, main one probably where did this miscommunication where it did it come from? Where did that humor that was completely inaccurate, how did it start? Where did it come from? Why was it allowed to circulate for about three hours before mine officials came to the podium to say that, in fact, the 12 miners were dead? They knew, they said, within about 20 minutes that the information, the jubilation was misplaced, that the information wasn't completely accurate.

They said they didn't want to rush the hopes of sparing family members but in the end, of course, as we've seen, family members absolutely devastated by the delay.

What happened to the men in the mine? We know they were able to, 12 of the 13 get out of their vehicle and make their way behind a protective covering. How long did they wait for? What exactly happened? And what caused the initial explosion in the first place? Why did Randal McCloy , 27 years old, three years in the mine, why did he survive when a dozen of his colleagues did not?

All of those questions and much more to be asked and, hopefully, answered one day. If you look at the headlines. The "USA Today" earlier editions said, "Alive". But now the later edition say, "Mine Rescue Races Time". Clearly having to ratchet back the coverage as we all know that the reports that the 12 were alive inaccurate.

"Daily News", "Alive! 12 Miners Rescued After Almost Two Days" Same thing with the local paper here in New York, "The New York Post:, "Alive! The 12 Trapped Miners Found in a West Virginia Miracle".

At the end of the day, only one miracle to report, Miles. The miracle of Randal McCloy who was found apparently with his breathing apparatus on and running. And maybe ultimately that's what saved his life -- Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: It will be interest to go find out. What was it about Randal McCloy, perhaps the least experienced of the group or certainly among the least experienced. Only three years as a miner, a man who went into those mines extremely leery. Father of two young children, told his wife every day, as she kissed him and said good-bye to him as he went down beneath the earth, just remember, God is with us as we're down there.

It appears God was with him and he is now the soul survivor of this terrible mine accident, now more than 48 hours old.

Near the mine over near the command center, CNN's Adaora Udoji has been watching this whole story unfold, through all of its ups and downs. And boy, they have been big ups and really deep downs, haven't they, Adaora?

ADAORA UDOJI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: I think that's an understatement, Miles. It's so hard, so difficult to understand what went so terribly, terribly wrong with that miscommunication.

The International Coal Group's CEO Ben Hatfield, essentially says the company never made a formal announcement that 12 of the 13 miners had survived, although CNN has heard from family members who say that Hatfield personally told them that 12 out of 13 miners did survive that accident.

But the CEO says essentially that rescue workers talking to people in the command center, those people in the command center thought the rescue workers were saying that 12 of the 13 had survived. That information quickly spread to the family members who were gathered at the church, Miles, where you are -- or had been gathered, hundreds of them.

There was euphoria, celebration; as we can well imagine, just incredible sense of relief and tremendous happiness. Only for all of that to come tumbling down and for them to learn the truth that, indeed, 12 out of the 13 had actually died. The CEO also felt that joy and disappointment and this is how he described it.


BEN HATFIELD, CEO, INT'L. COAL GROUP: To put it in perspective, even -- even myself and the people that were with me in the building, the command center for a period of time, believed that there were 12 survivors because that was the initial communication that came to the command center.

But it was wrong. And I won't -- I won't try to get into who misspoke, but it was wrong and that certainly let us get excited and hopeful beyond -- beyond the level certainly that we should have.


UDOJI: Now, the families, as they start dealing with this grief also, as you've noted, Miles, there's lots of anger. And they have a tremendous amount of questions as to how it was possible that they were told that 12 miners survived and there was that terrible delay of somewhere around three hours before they learned that it was not the case -- Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: Adaora Udoji, who is at the command center, about a half mile from where I stand.

I had a chance to speak to some of those family members and ask them about the emotions, the terrible range of emotions that they are now feeling in the wake of all this, having lost somebody, but also having been through that period of time when they thought they were ever so close to seeing them again. Let's listen.


M. O'BRIEN (on camera): Joining us now to talk a little bit about this is Debra Newsom and Alma Withers and Anna Casto. Relatives of one of the miners and would like to leave him out of this because his wife is not doing so well. She's at the Baptist Church still.

I want to begin with you, Anna. You were here as the information was parceled out. Tell me how it all unfolded in that church?

ANNA CASTO, COUSIN OF MINER: We didn't know nothing. Then they kept telling us this, telling us that. They said they would come update us, and they never did. Finally, they come. Mr. Hatfield, the CEO of the mines, he would say he didn't know nothing.

Finally he come up and 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, and go up, 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 news that they're gone. That there is no survivors. We want to know why and how people can get by with this! This is supposed to be a free country, people!

And I want to know. He says he has got letters from the president and everything, so why can't we, as a family -- I'm not asking for nothing for me, I just want that immediate family to get some kind of satisfaction some kind of answers.

M. O'BRIEN: And I think we all can understand an honest miscommunication.



CASTO: No. There was no -- there was--



M. O'BRIEN: Tell us what happened.

CASTO: He strictly told us they were alive. Three hours later he come back and said there was no communicate -- no, no, no.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was no miscommunications.

CASTO: There was too many families up there that had heard everything. No. There was -- no.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No, no. We was told that there was one gentleman had passed away. Well, we mourned with that family. You know? Our hearts went out to them, but yet, the rest of us were told, hey, your men are coming -- they're coming home. And then, what, two or three hours later, then, boom. Oh, well, there's no survivors. That is not a miscommunication. I don't feel like that is at all. I mean, you know, just don't lie. Don't tell us one thing and then -- hey, we're up there celebrating but, yet, we're mourning with this other family.

M. O'BRIEN: What are your thoughts as to how this transpired? I mean, the company officials saying they knew 20 minutes after the miscommunication that that initial information was wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know. I just think they should of gave -- once they found out, they should of come back up and told the people.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And told the story right. You know? Don't -- don't tell us one thing and then let -- let us rejoice and praise God, you know? Hey! Our guys are alive, you know? Hey, they're going to get to come home. And then just like pull the rug out from underneath of us.

CASTO: It isn't fair. It isn't fair the way they done, not only us, but all of the other families.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: No. All of the families! All of them! It's devastating.

M. O'BRIEN: Describe what the scene was like inside the Baptist Church as all this transpired.

CASTO: When?

M. O'BRIEN: Well, first, when they came in and gave you the good news.

CASTO: We was happy!

M. O'BRIEN: Yeah.

CASTO: But, like I said, with the one that we knew had lost their life, we mourned with them.

M. O'BRIEN: Right.

CASTO: But us, we thought our men was coming home. We rejoiced. We sung. We was joyful. We more or less had a party because we knew our men was coming home.

And -- but then the next thing we know, we're all still happy, happy as a Jay bird. And then, like I said, about three hours later, it was like we wasn't laughing no more. It's been all sad. And it's not only this family, it was all of the families.


CASTO: The whole entire church.


CASTO: The people that was there. Including the Red Cross even mourned for us. It's mourning for us right now, and the other families.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You know, it's not just the families that are going through this. It is Upshur County, Lewis County. I mean, it is the state of West Virginia right now. I honestly believe is mourning with us. I truly believe that.

M. O'BRIEN: There is mourning and also tremendous anger. Who are you angry with?

CASTO: The whole world right now, including you. And you never done a thing to me. Mostly, Mr. Hatfield, the CEO of (INAUDIBLE)


CASTO: The man who has probably never been underground in his life. Why did he not bring one of the rescue men over at 11 o'clock and tell us where they were at and what they were doing? We have been told from day one, from the time they entered the mines, till -- each and every step they got to -- I can't remember what they call it -- they had never found a piece of debris. Now, they're finding debris. Why was we lied to?


M. O'BRIEN: The sole survivor of this accident was trapped, 13 miners, killed one pretty much right away, is 27-year-old Randal McCloy. Three years he's been mining, relative neophyte to it. He was taken from here, where in the tiny community, a little hollow of Sago to a nearby hospital where he was treated immediately.

He was admitted there in critical condition, put on a ventilator. His vital signs assessed. Then he was transferred 50 miles north of here to Morgantown, West Virginia University Medical Center, where they have a level one trauma center.

The hospital here says really the only reason they transferred him is because he was on a ventilator and they don't sustain people on ventilators for long periods of time. He remains in critical condition this morning. With more on what kind of shape he's in, we turn it over to CNN's Joe Johns who is in Morgantown -- Joe?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Miles, he was brought here to Morgantown, the West Virginia University Hospital behind me. As you said, suffering in critical condition, unconscious. We got a lot of information, frankly, from the doctor at the hospital in Upshur County around 3:00 in the morning.

She said in all likelihood, he was suffering from shock, perhaps some dehydration. They weren't able to tell what else was wrong with him. They said he was moaning, so, clearly, there was a potential at least for some alertness. They brought him up here to what is called a level one trauma center and this is where he remains. Around 8 o'clock Eastern Time, we are expecting a news conference of some sort from the doctors here, or a statement from the hospital, to tell us a little bit more about his condition. As it stands now, it's a bit of a mystery. It was a bit of a mystery, in fact, to the doctors in Upshur County as to what kind of injuries he might have sustained.

So it's been quite a journey for him tonight. The only survivor, the one person who might be able eventually to tell the authorities what happened in that mine and how long people may have survived. Right now, is not in very good shape -- Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: Joe, it was interesting to me that the initial report from the Upshur County facility indicated that he did not have high levels of carbon monoxide in his bloodstream, and that does not seem to jive with the conditions which they have discovered inside that mine.

Clearly, there are a number of mysteries. That is probably chief among them. You hit it right on point. We asked questions about that. The doctor, frankly, was not able to explain it. Obviously, if he wakes up and when he wakes up, they will be able to get a bit more information, but it's a tough call right now.

I also have to tell you, there at that hospital, there was quite a bit of shock, as you might imagine. Doctors, teams of doctors were prepared for the other miners to come over and be treated and the news came quite stunningly to them through the television that no one else was coming. So it's been a long night here in the hills of West Virginia -- Miles?

M. O'BRIEN: Well, yes, Joe Johns, a let-down for all of us but, in particular, of course, for those families who are most affected this morning. It's hard to really even but words on the kind of devastation and the emotions that they feel on this morning.

In just a little bit, we're going to check in with the governor of West Virginia. In 1968, he lost an uncle to a mining accident. He vowed at that time never to hold back information from family members. We'll ask him if maybe too much information was released in just a moment. Stay with us.


M. O'BRIEN: Welcome back. I'm Miles O'Brien in Upshur County, West Virginia on this morning after the news is being processed and understood and grappled with be this tight-knit community; 12 of the 13 trapped miners dead after that explosion 48 hours.

When this story first became apparent, we thought immediately of course, of that previous incident, July of 2002, Somerset, Pennsylvania, the Quecreek Mine. From where I stand now, Sago, West Virginia, about a hundred miles north of here across the border into Pennsylvania. This is rich coal mining country, which knows no state borders. In that incident, you'll recall those nine miners were pulled from their trapped crevice beneath the surface of the earth after in excess of 72 hours. Trapped in a small area that was filling up with cold water. One of the people on the scene there and who is responsible for Deep Mine Safety for the state of Pennsylvania is Joseph Sbaffoni. And Mr. Sbaffoni he joins us now from Somerset, Pennsylvania.

Good to have you with us. I don't know if you were following everything overnight. When did you first hear that there is a possibility 12 of these miners here might have survived?

JOSEPH SBAFFONI, PA. MINE SAFETY BUREAU: In fact, I was doing interviews last night for CNN and that's when we got the word from West Virginia, and through the media that the 12 miners were found, and they were found alive.

M. O'BRIEN: Were you a little bit skeptical when you first heard that? You must have been quite surprised given what you knew and the high levels of carbon monoxide in that mine here.

SBAFFONI: Well, you know, not knowing all of the details of what was going on underground, the fact that it was conveyed to us that they found the transportation equipment and that the miners' buckets and so forth were not there, and that they had left that area. It indicated that they tried to do something, whether they tried to escape or whether they tried to find an area where they could get into a better atmosphere. So there was always that optimism.

M. O'BRIEN: You know, that optimism is kind of poignant now when you think about the possibility that they made it through the initial explosion. No one knew for a while if that was the case. As you know, one miner died as a result of the initial explosion as we know. But we're told the 12 who survived were behind some sort of barricade that they were able to fashion with the cloth material that they used for the ventilation systems.

How long would you gather, or guess -- or would you even want to venture a guess, could very they have survived in that situation, that condition?

SBAFFONI: I mean, that's anybody's guess. I'm sure it will take the investigation and test to determine -- to determine those answers. It seems like they did the things that they're supposed to do. They stuck together, they tried to find an area where they felt they could safely barricade themselves and it sounds like they tried to barricade.

M. O'BRIEN: I was speaking just a little while ago with one of the fire chiefs here. Talking about the issue of a speedy response to these mining accidents. His concern is there's only a few teams that have the training and the equipment to respond underground to these sorts of things. He wishes there were more of them, more trained and more disbursed. What can be done for that? Because, obviously, time really is of the essence. SBAFFONI: Well, I don't think there's any question that time factor is very important. But again, you know, the response to the mine, the notifications, the teams arrived. Before them, teams can go underground, the people in charge of the rescue operation have to be certain that it's safe for them to do so. And, you know, following through the last two days, it appeared like they were looking out for the safety of the rescue team members. And that, quite frankly, it seemed like the team members were advancing quite quickly.

That's always a concern in these type of situations. You don't know what caused the explosion to begin with. Are there still dangers present that could affect the safety of the mine rescue team and that's of the utmost concern to the people in charge of the rescue.

M. O'BRIEN: Joseph Sbaffoni, who is in charge of Deep Mine Safety for the state of Pennsylvania, thanks for your time this morning.

SBAFFONI: Yes, I just want to, you know --

M. O'BRIEN: We're going to take a break. I'm sorry?

SBAFFONI: Just one thing. You know, our prayers go out to the families of those miners and also for the miners. It's a tragic day for mining in this country and our thoughts and prayers are with all of the people involved.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. Thank you for sharing that with us. Sorry to step on you there.

We'll be back with more in a moment. We're going to check in with the governor of West Virginia and talk to him after a short break.


S. O'BRIEN: We're going to continue to follow this mining story. We want to take a moment to talk some business news.

Andy predicted a stock rally a week ago.

ANDY SERWER, CNN ANCHOR, AMERICAN MORNING: Timing is everything in this business, right?

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, it is. It was a week ago.

SERWER: That's right.

Some positive news for investors and consumers this morning, Soledad. The interest rate hike campaign by the Federal Reserve may be at an end. Wall Street applauded yesterday. You can see the Dow up almost 130 points. The Nasdaq up about 1.7 percent.

Fed minutes released yesterday from its December meeting suggest that the governors and Alan Greenspan, the soon to be stepping down head of the Federal Reserve, believed that there is no longer a reason to raise interest rates as they have done since June of '04. There may be one more hike, that is what people are suggesting at this point.

Counterpoint to the good news yesterday on Wall Street, oil prices surged. This because of the cold weather in the East Coast. Also a dispute in Russian Ukraine over natural gas prices and some rumblings in Iran over its nuclear program, perhaps resuming that.

You can see here, oil prices been all over the board. Futures are retreating a little bit this morning. Obviously in response to yesterday's big gain.

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


S. O'BRIEN: As you well know, there is only one bright note to come out of this terrible tragedy at the Sago Mine. The one miner who survived. Doctor Sanjay Gupta joins us with a look at his condition. Randal McCloy, 27 years old. Why did he make it? That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. We're back in a moment.



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