Families of Coal Miners Search For Answers

High on a tree-shaded hill beside the Sago Baptist Church, the moss-covered inscription on a weathered tombstone reads: "Sometime we will understand."

There is so much the people of this central Appalachian coal community are waiting to understand: How an explosion two miles into a mountain had trapped 13 of their men and how someone could tell them that 12 of the miners had somehow survived the blast.

Most of all, they want to know who got the information wrong, and to understand why state and company officials let them rejoice for more than two hours before telling them that instead of 12 survivors, they would be bringing home 12 corpses.

"We was looking for them to come through that door, man," a red-eyed John Casto said Wednesday as he stood beside a funeral home tent in back of the Sago Baptist Church, where the bells had tolled the "miracle" just hours before. "And it didn't happen that way."

The tale that is emerging from the Sago Mine disaster is one of miscommunication, wishful thinking and an unwavering faith in God and the toughness of West Virginia coal miners.

About 38 hours after Monday's blast at the International Coal Group mine in northcentral West Virginia, the hopes of one of 13 miners' families came crashing down. Gov. Joe Manchin told families gathered at the little white clapboard church in the hollow across from the mine that rescuers had found one man dead.

But in the same instant in the mist-shrouded hollow, the hopes of 12 other families rose. The buggy the men had ridden into the mine had not been damaged in the suspected methane gas blast, and the men had apparently gathered their self-rescue gear and lunch buckets and walked off under their own steam.

Suddenly, at about 11:48 p.m. Tuesday, people came streaming out of the hollow from the church. They were screaming: They've found them! All 12 are alive!

Casto, who knew three of the trapped men, was standing in the church's tin-roofed fellowship hall when a man burst through the front door and shouted: "There still are miracles, because there are 12 men alive!"

Bridgette Lusk, whose uncle Martin "Junior" Toler was among the trapped, said her first cousin was a mine foreman at Sago who had called family at the church to report, "They just said they're alive."

The word spread like wildfire.

The crowd erupted into cheers and applause. Burly men in camouflage hugged each other as a woman shouted "Thank you, Lord!" into the foggy night.

A peal of joy came ringing forth from the tiny belfry. When the bells ceased, Pastor Wease Day stood on the fellowship hall's front porch and led the crowd in an a cappella chorus of the old-time hymn "How Great Thou Art."

In the midst of the jubilation, the family of fire boss Terry Helms, who was presumed dead in the initial blast, floated dazedly through the crowd like a black cloud on a spring day.

Shortly thereafter, Casto said, another man rushed into the sanctuary and grabbed the microphone. Standing beneath a framed tapestry of Da Vinci's "The Last Supper," the unidentified man said the emergency crews were going to bring the men up to the church to feed them and reunite them with their families.

"It's going to be another Christmas this year," the man said.

Ben Hatfield, ICG's chief executive, said Wednesday that taking the miners to the church was never part of the emergency plan, which called for any survivors to immediately be transported to a hospital.

"We had no idea what they were being told," Hatfield said.

Manchin had been in the church praying with the families when the unidentified man made the announcement. He looked around at his troopers and communications people in puzzlement.

"Have we confirmed that?" he asked. No, was the reply.

Manchin told the families that he was going back over to the mine to get more information.

Wanda Groves, the mother of trapped miner Jerry Groves, was walking beside Manchin when she stumbled. As the governor helped the struggling woman regain her footing, Darlene Groves, the woman's daughter-in-law, touched the sleeve of the governor's leather jacket and asked him: "Are all 12 men alive?"

Darlene Groves said the governor turned to her and said quietly, "Yes."

Manchin would say later he got "caught up in the euphoria." But what was supposed to have been a personal exchange was overheard, and a private word of encouragement suddenly took the shape of official confirmation from the highest level of state government.

Shortly after midnight, Manchin repeated in a telephone interview with The Associated Press that 12 men had been found alive.

"It is a miracle; there's no other explanation," he said. "They're hunkered down. ... We have some people that are going to need some medical attention."

Church member Josephine Linger was in the kitchen when someone announced that the rescued miners were expected at the church within the hour. Linger and the others began laying out a feast, brewing hot coffee and stacking a buffet table with turkey and ham sandwiches, juice and "all kinds of cookies."

At 1:12 a.m., a single ambulance sped off under police escort toward nearby Buckhannon. People standing in the straw-strewn mud across the road applauded the lone passenger. They had no idea that 26-year-old Randal McCloy would be the only person brought out alive.

As the time ticked away, Linger and the others peered out the church windows, looking for other ambulances to bring the remaining miners up the hollow to the church. People took turns playing tunes like "I'll Fly Away" and "The Old Rugged Cross" on the piano, but as the hour came and went, the gathering began getting restless.

Hatfield, the mining company chief executive, told reporters that mine officials held off announcing the men were dead while they tried to make certain that was the case.

"In the process of being cautious, we allowed the jubilation to go on longer than it should have," he said, his voice crackling with emotion.

Hatfield said the initial mistake resulted from a miscommunication among the rescue crews. Another ICG executive, vice president Gene Kitts, suggested that the misunderstanding resulted because the rescuers who reached the victims in the mine were wearing full-face oxygen masks and used radios to report their findings to their base.

Kitts said Wednesday that the rescuers agreed not to use the words "survivor" or "victim" while communicating during their search. Instead they were instructed to use the word "item" when locating one of the trapped miners.

"That system worked when the first miner was found," he said.

But the code failed when the other miners were discovered, Kitts said, because people on the surface were told "12 are alive."

"In the jubilation of the moment the rules didn't hold," Hatfield said.

Diana George, a Red Cross public affairs specialist from Fairmont, was at the church when Hatfield told the crowd that the information was backward: It was 12 dead and only one survivor, the deadliest mining accident in West Virginia in 37 years.

"No," George said to herself. "No, no, no, no. It just can't be! How could it be just so opposite? No!"

A woman stormed out of the sanctuary, cursing and yelling "liars!" A man lunged forward and had to be restrained by police. Two elderly women fainted and were carried into the fellowship hall, where they were given oxygen.

Their last glimmer of hope extinguished, many left the area. But about 300 lingered at the church, clinging to each other and refusing to believe.

About 4 a.m., Linger said, someone came in and said the story was wrong, that the men were not dead. But it was not long before another company official came to repeat the grim news.

Angry family members railed about the delay in stopping the celebration, but Manchin said it was not the time for finger-pointing.

"To put blame on anybody is wrong," he said. "Everyone has worked so hard. ... Our odds were long against us that we would find the miners, but I still had that hope."