McCloy: Doomed Sago Miners Thought Rescue Was Coming

As they sat behind a curtain that held back thick smoke but not invisible, deadly carbon monoxide, the doomed crew of the Sago Mine talked about the rescue they thought was coming, the sole survivor says.

The men banged on roof bolts trying to signal where they were trapped after the Jan. 2 blast, then gathered together behind a cloth in the light of one headlamp to wait, Randal McCloy Jr. told state and federal investigators earlier this month.

In a 96-page transcript of his June 19 interview, McCloy said he believed there was a seismographic machine somewhere above them, waiting for the signal.

"I figured they'd bring that machine down and would have found us, would have drilled the hole in the right spot and would have took us out of there," he said. "That's what I expected. I was expecting to hear shots fired on the roof ... and didn't hear nothing. We banged and banged and banged, everyone did.

"We had a discussion about that, about how long it was going to take. We thought that we was going to get rescued," he said. "And as time went on, it didn't look good."

The crew didn't know they were pounding in vain: The machine that helped save nine men at Pennsylvania's Quecreek mine after a 78-hour entrapment in 2002 was never sent to Upshur County.

At a public hearing in May, a district manager with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said the machine was not dispatched to Sago because officials believed they knew where the men were. The problem was reaching them, not locating them.

Though all nine men survived Quecreek, the only miracle to emerge from Sago was McCloy, who survived more than 40 hours in poisoned air — a feat doctors have never been able to fully explain.

State mine safety officials released the transcript of McCloy's two-hour testimony on Wednesday. The Associated Press had requested a copy under the Freedom of Information Act.

McCloy, 27, of Simpson, is still recovering from brain damage. Twelve of his fellow crew members died, one in the blast and the rest of carbon monoxide poisoning.

The survivor was interviewed by federal Mine Safety and Health Administration officials and state investigator J. Davitt McAteer in Morgantown.

McCloy said he doesn't recall whether he'd begun work before the blast occurred, but he remembers that the mine filled quickly with smoke and dust that hung in the air, choking the crew.

Foreman Martin "Junior" Toler immediately took charge, concerned about his men but calmly gathering them together and keeping them organized, McCloy said. Toler told the crew to don their self-contained self-rescuers, McCloy said, but the air packs assigned to Toler and fellow miners Tom Anderson, Jerry Groves and Jesse Jones didn't work.

The men retreated to the face of the mine, hung a brattice cloth barrier, then plotted their next move. After about an hour and a half, McCloy said, Toler and Anderson left the barricade to see if there was a way out. They returned quickly, choking and gagging, turned back by thick smoke and debris.

There was no choice but to hunker down.

"All of our options were diminished to nothing," McCloy said.

At the May hearing, a federal MSHA expert testified that tests on the recovered air packs revealed none of the devices had been used to full capacity. Though the rescuers did activate, MSHA said, the amount of chemicals used to create oxygen varied widely, from 25 percent to 75 percent.

McCloy said every member of his crew — some with more than 30 years of experience — was well trained in the use of the rescuers, but they did not function as expected when needed.

He tried to make all four devices work but couldn't, he said. The crew was then forced to share, McCloy offering his to fellow roof bolter Groves.

Groves' air pack appeared to have a broken valve, which would have activated the chemical cartridge in the container, McCloy said. That chemical reacts with carbon dioxide that miners exhale, producing oxygen.

"I fought with it for I don't know how long, trying to mess with that valve, blow air through it or anything I could do, but nothing would work," he told investigators. "You put air into it, you moved it, but there was nothing going on with it. That's what told me right there it was broken."

The devices have come under scrutiny since Sago, and McAteer, the state's lead investigator, has called for nationwide testing underground, where miners need them to work.

The sole survivor of a May 20 explosion that killed five men at Kentucky's Darby Mine has said he believes his air pack — the same make and model as those used at Sago — lasted only about 10 minutes. However, Paul Ledford told The Associated Press earlier this month that MSHA insists his air pack worked properly while he was unconscious and until he was rescued.

An independent report on the Sago explosion and the investigation is expected to be presented to Gov. Joe Manchin by July 19. McAteer, a former head of MSHA, has been working on the report as Manchin's special adviser.

Though mine owner International Coal Group Inc. of Ashland, Ky., believes lightning somehow sparked methane gas in the mine, neither state nor federal investigators have identified an official cause.

McAteer has said he will discuss his report at a mine safety forum Thursday at the Charleston Civic Center.