TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. – Despite perilous conditions following an explosion which left 13 miners surrounded by toxic smoke, most of the crew trapped two miles deep inside Sago Mine in West Virginia did exactly as they had been trained to: They retreated further into the mine and hung a sheet to filter the air while they waited to be rescued.
Twelve of the miners were found dead early Wednesday morning while one remains in critical condition. The news of the deaths followed a torturous night for the miners' families who initially were told that all but one miner had survived, only later to be told that 12 of the missing 13 miners were actually dead.
Mine officials on Wednesday said they "sincerely regret" the miscommunication that caused family members of trapped coal miners in West Virginia to believe their loved ones were alive for nearly three hours before learning that 12 of the 13 miners were actually dead.
Saying the entire ordeal was "truly a great tragedy," Ben Hatfield, CEO of mine owner International Coal Group, said he understands the frustration and anger felt by the families and is sorry for the confusion caused by false reports that the men trapped underground were alive. He also said officials at the mine command center had "no idea" what informal information family members were being told.
"We fully recognize the criticism the company has received … rightly or wrongly, we believe it was important to make factual statements to the families and we believed word had been sent to the church that additional reports may not have been correct," a teary-eyed Hatfield, told reporters.
He added: "We are incredibly saddened by the turn of events. We understand the grief and anger ... these people have endured ... just like we did, they were clinging to hope. They needed good information and we were trying to get them good information."
Another ICG executive, vice president Gene Kitts, suggested that the misunderstanding resulted because the rescuers in the mine were wearing full-face oxygen masks when they used radios to report their findings to their base.
Family members and friends of the victims gathered at the Sago Baptist Church Wednesday night to mourn the loss of the miners with a candlelight vigil.
The last of the 12 bodies were taken out of the mine at midmorning. A former elementary school owned by West Virginia Wesleyan College was converted into a temporary morgue, where the miners' families went to identify the victims.
One miner was found near where the blast occurred and most like died from the blast's impact. McCloy and the 11 others were found at the deepest point of the mine, about 2 1/2 miles from the entrance, behind a fibrous plastic cloth stretched across an area about 20 feet wide to keep out deadly carbon monoxide gas, Hatfield said. Such curtains, called battices, are used in mines to direct air flow, and miners are trained to use them in an emergency.
After nearly three hours of hearing from someone that 12 of the 13 miners were OK after more than 30 hours of being trapped underground, the horrifying news that in fact only one was found alive angered family members who had been rejoicing and singing hymns over the earlier news.
"There was no apology. There was no nothing. It was immediately out the door," Nick Helms, son of miner Terry Helms, said of how the families eventually found out about the demise of the miners.
"We got the high and then they waited too long to really tell us," Tim Stalnaker, nephew of miner Jim Bennett, 61, told FOX News. "Once they found out that we thought they were alive, they really should have come out" and told the families that was incorrect information, he added. "I know these things are terrible and we just have to do the best we can."
Advantages of Youth
The sole survivor was 26-year-old Randal McCloy Jr. Despite being in critical condition, McCloy, the youngest of the miners, squeezed his wife's hand Wednesday evening, according to Dr. Lawrence Roberts.
"Having been laying still for so many hours and being poorly hydrated for that period of time has resulted in some kidney dysfunction," Roberts said. "We assume that will be a temporary phenomenon while the kidneys recover."
McCloy is being kept sedated while doctors continue to do tests to determine the extent of his injuries. Hospital officials did say, however, that McCloy suffered from one collapsed lung. His young age may have helped him survive; most of the other miners were in their 50s.
"Youth always has its advantages," Roberts said at a briefing Wednesday at West Virginia University's Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.
In a television interview, Charles Green, McCloy's father-in-law, said McCloy was suffering from hypothermia and was on a ventilator but didn't suffer any broken bones. There was no carbon monoxide in his body, he said, despite concerns about high levels of carbon monoxide inside the mine.
When he found out his son-in-law was the only survivor, "I was still devastated," he said. "My whole family's heart goes out to them other families."
At the Pentagon, President Bush said his heart goes out to the victims' families, and he thanked the West Virginia governor and the rescue workers for their leadership and search efforts.
"Today our nation mourns those who lost their lives in the mining accident in West Virginia," the president said during a press conference Wednesday. "I want to thank those who risked their lives to save those miners and their acts of courage. May God bless the good people of West Virginia."
What Was Supposed to Be 'Like Another Christmas'
As rescue workers tried to get to the men, families waited at the Sago Baptist Church during an emotional two-day vigil.
Hatfield late Wednesday afternoon gave reporters a timeline of events to explain how the mixed messages — most likely derived from jubilant rescue and command center workers calling friends and relatives, officials believe — about the miners' fate could have been relayed to the church:
11:45 p.m. Tuesday: The mine rescue command center, comprised of 12 to 13 federal, state and mining company officials, received a report from the rescue teams that 12 of the 13 miners were alive.
12:18 a.m. Wednesday: The command center received a report that rescue team and survivors were leaving the base area of the mine. No formal statement was released by mine officials.
"We were aware that numerous cell-phone calls from a number of mine rescue workers and jubilant employees were made to family members and others," at this time, Hatfield said.
Families began streaming out of the church, yelling, "They're alive!" The church's bells began ringing and families embraced, as politicians proclaimed word of the apparent rescue a miracle.
"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, another man 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.
Gov. Joe Manchin tried to find out for sure what was going on.
"By this time, the rafters were coming down, as you will, the bells were being rung, emotions were running so high. Finally we got the miracle we were looking for," Machin told FOX News about the seemingly good news.
Though Manchin announced to those in the church there were 12 survivors after getting confirmation from the command center, he later said he was uncertain about the news.
12:30 a.m. Wednesday: Rescue teams were nearly out of the mine breathing fresh air. It was then that the command center was informed that there was only one survivor and no vital signs were seen in the other 11.
1:20 a.m. Wednesday: Mine rescue teams and the one confirmed survivor reached the surface and the unidentified survivor was sent to the hospital.
1:38 a.m. Wednesday: Four more rescue teams are dispatched to confirm the deaths or provide urgent medical care to any who may be alive but in a comatose state because of carbon monoxide poisoning.
"Company and state officials did not believe it was prudent to issue a statement to family or media" without the identity of the survivor or the confirmed status of the others, Hatfield said.
Around 2 a.m. Wednesday, "within minutes" of learning that the initial positive reports may have been incorrect, state police officers were asked to notify clergy at the church that the news may have been premature, Hatfield said.
"Based upon our information, at least some of the clergy received that message but it did not get effectively relayed to the people who needed it the most — the miners' families," he said.
2:15 a.m. Wednesday: McCloy's identity was confirmed at the hospital.
2:30 a.m. Wednesday: ICG writes up a statement and mine officials headed to the church to tell families the devastating news of the 12 deaths.
Hatfield told the families that "there had been a lack of communication, that what we were told was wrong and that only one survived," said John Groves, whose brother Jerry Groves was one of the trapped miners.
Chaos broke out in the church and a fight started. About a dozen state troopers and a SWAT team were positioned along the road near the church because police were concerned about violence. Witnesses said one man had to be wrestled to the ground when he lunged for mining officials.
"I don't know how it happened," Manchin told FOX News of the misinformation. "We were hoping for 13 miracles and we didn't get that."
'We Are Clinging to One Miracle'
Newspapers around the country had morning headlines reflecting the news that 12 of the miners were found safe. "Alive" read the banner on the front of the New York Post, while USA Today's top headline was "12 Miners Found Alive," and the New York Times front-page headline read," 12 Miners Are Found Alive, Family Members Say."
The explosion was the state's deadliest mining accident since November 1968, when 78 men — including the uncle of Manchin — died in an explosion at Consol's Farmington No. 9 mine in Marion County, an hour's drive north of Tallmansville. Nineteen bodies remain entombed in the mountain. It was that disaster that prompted Congress to pass the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.
It was also the worst nationwide since a pair of explosions tore through the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 mine in Brookwood, Ala., on Sept. 23, 2001, killing 13.
Federal Department of Labor officials promised an investigation. Acting Assistant Secretary David Dye, who heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said it will include "how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners' conditions."
"Our hearts and prayers are with the families, friends and loved ones of the 12 miners who perished in this tragedy and our hopes and prayers are with the one miner who survived," Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said in a statement. "Along with them, the nation has been riveted by the heroic efforts of the mine rescue teams and others, who rushed to the scene and put their lives on the line to try and return their comrades to safety."
The 12 miners were found together behind a barrier they had constructed to block carbon monoxide gas. They were found near where the company had drilled an air hole early Tuesday in an attempt to contact the men.
The miners had stretched a piece of safety fabric across an area about 20 feet wide to block out the gas, Hatfield said. Each miner had carried a breathing apparatus and had been able to use it, according to mining officials.
The hole also was used to check air quality in the mine, which revealed high concentrations of carbon monoxide. The odorless, colorless gas can be lethal at high doses. At lower levels, it can cause headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea, fatigue and brain damage.
Manchin, who had earlier said that the state believed in miracles, tried to focus on the news that one had survived.
"We are clinging to one miracle and we must not forget that," he told FOX News.
FOXNews.com's Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.