TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. – A coal company executive says it became clear within 20 minutes that the news anxious family members had received about the survival of a dozen trapped miners was terribly wrong.
Yet for three hours, church bells rang in celebration, families joined arm-in-arm to sing joyous hymns, the governor proclaimed it a miracle, and television newscasts and newspapers spread the word around the world.
When the truth finally unfolded early Wednesday, with families members called back and told the 12 were actually dead and only one miner survived, joy turned instantly to fury and a scuffle broke out when relatives lunged at a coal company official.
International Coal Group Inc. chief executive Ben Hatfield said families were not told of the mistake until three hours later because officials wanted to have all the information right first.
"Let's put this in perspective. Who do I tell not to celebrate? I didn't know if there were 12 or one (who were alive). Until we had people who could measure the vital signs ... we didn't want to put the families through another roller coaster," Hatfield said.
Neither Hatfield nor Gov. Joe Manchin would say who was responsible for the misinformation, but Hatfield told reporters that he believed someone overheard communications from rescuers who had been communicating from a special mine phone after they reached the bodies.
Whoever overheard misunderstood the information and someone relayed it to the families, Hatfield said.
That word came just before midnight, and to relatives who feared the worst about the 13 miners trapped 260 feet underground following an explosion Monday, it was as if their prayers had been answered.
"A person said, 'There are miracles — 12 alive and one dead!"' said John Casto, who was inside when the man he couldn't identify ran to the front of the church and made the proclamation. "They started clapping, hollering and shouting."
Several relatives, who danced and praised God as the church bells rang, said an unidentified mine foreman had called someone at the church on a cell phone to relay the information.
A few minutes later, Casto said Wednesday, another man — he doesn't know who — came to church and said squads cars would pick up the miners and bring them to the church where they would be reunited with their families. The man said "it would be like another Christmas," Casto said, chocking back tears.
Then the families waited. Three hours later, Hatfield and Manchin appeared at the church to announce that there had been a miscommunication and all but one miner was dead.
Casto said it took a while for relatives to absorb the news. And then a pastor had to tell the angry crowd to calm down.
"'Whatever the hell did God do for us?"' a young man shouted in reply, Casto said.
Ann Merideth, whose father, Jim Bennett, was trapped in the mine, said she was giving thanks in the church until she learned he had died. But still, "I don't blame God for this," she said.
Merideth's husband, Daniel, said family members were visibly angry and lunged at a coal company official.
"They are lucky they have the patrolmen they had," Daniel Merideth said.
Manchin spoke to The Associated Press from his cell phone shortly after relatives said they had received word the miners were safe.
"The rescue people have been talking to us. They told us they have 12 alive," Manchin said.
He said later he went to the mine site to try to confirm the news when rescuers said there had been miscommunication and not all had survived.