BUCKHANNON, W.Va. – A three-day public hearing about the Sago Mine disaster ended much as it had begun, with a flood of tears, some hearts full of anger and too many questions unanswered.
"Can you tell the families what murdered our men?" Debbie Hamner, whose husband George "Junior" Hamner died, demanded of state and federal investigators. When there was no immediate reply, she added, "No one wants to answer?"
That, she was finally told, is the goal of the continuing investigation by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Dozens of witnesses testified during some 27 hours of hearings, which concluded Thursday. Topics ranged from how seals were built on mined-out areas and how lightning could have ignited methane gas to why miners' air packs weren't used up and what caused the miscommunication underground that caused families to believe for three hours that 12 miners had survived 41 hours of entrapment when only one had.
In at least one way, the hearing was a success — it gave family members of the 12 dead miners the chance to question federal and state authorities. One man was killed in the blast and 11 others died from carbon monoxide poisoning. Only one man, Randal McCloy Jr., survived.
"Family members got to do something they have never before in history, ever, got to do, and that was to question federal government and state officials," said Pam Campbell, sister-in-law of fallen Sago miner Marty Bennett.
The daughter of miner Terry Helms was asked if she believed the hearing was just "for show."
"I don't think any coal company at this point can do this for show because they're going to be 'on show' for a really long time," said Amber Helms, "and it would actually be easier for them to implement these things.
Chris Toler said in a letter that he was thankful for the hearings and will discard the pent-up anger he has felt over the death of his father, Martin Toler. But Hamner's daughter, Sarah Bailey, lashed out at mine owner International Coal Group Inc. in a tearful rage.
"ICG's neglect and lack of consideration for human life and safety has robbed me of a man who was dear to my heart," she shouted, sobbing. "Their actions have caused our house to be an empty space that can never be filled again."
ICG President Ben Hatfield said there was nothing unusual to warn mine managers that an explosion was imminent, and he assured relatives that everyone was "working tirelessly, using all resources available, to save your family members."
"We deeply regret that there was not a different outcome," he said.