BUCKHANNON, W.Va. – As the investigation into the Sago Mine disaster took shape Monday, the best hope for firsthand details about the explosion and its aftermath lay in critical condition, fighting a fever.
Doctors treating sole survivor Randal McCloy Jr. declined to speculate on when the 26-year-old would fully wake up from a medically induced coma or comment on the extent of any brain damage he suffered in the tragedy that killed 12 fellow coal miners.
But physicians said McCloy's brain stem appeared to be normal, and that a fever is common for patients in intensive care. McCloy was breathing on his own, although he remained connected to a ventilator as a precaution, and was responding to stimuli, doctors said.
"He is likely one of the longest survivors of this sort of exposure, not only carbon monoxide, but the other circumstances in the mine, for about 42 hours," said Dr. Julian Bailes, a neurosurgeon at West Virginia University's Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.
The updates on McCloy's condition came as three more families held funerals Monday for the miners.
An overflowing crowd of mourners at the Buckhannon Union Mission Church listened as miner Jim Bennett was eulogized as a man of fiery Christian faith. The 61-year-old man who operated the mine's shuttle car wrote a note while trapped indicating he was still lucid 10 hours after the blast, his daughter has said.
"I'm as sure as I'm standing here today, I believe that down in the pits of that Sago Mine, there was one fella, not tall in stature perhaps, but was telling the boys, `You better get ready. We're going to meet Jesus,"' the Rev. Dennis Estes said.
The disaster was the worst coal-mining accident in West Virginia since 1968, when 78 miners were killed in a mine explosion in Farmington.
Federal and state mine safety officials pledged to hold joint public hearings on the accident. Meanwhile, Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Jay Rockefeller, both D-W.Va., called for hearings into coal mine safety.
Byrd said federal mine safety officials would be called to testify before a Senate subcommittee that would hold hearings into the disaster beginning Jan. 19.
"It's time for the decisions affecting America's miners to be made with their best interests at heart. That should be the legacy of the Sago miners."
Rockefeller said Congress had not held full oversight hearings into the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration since 2001.
Among the questions investigators are sure to ask: Could the trapped miners have walked out under their own power, instead of following their training and waiting for a rescue that arrived too late?
Gov. Joe Manchin said that it was too soon to tell. That opinion was also shared by Bob Friend, acting deputy assistant secretary of labor for mine safety at the MHSA.
"We don't know the exact conditions," Friend said. "We don't know what obstructions the miners encountered coming back in the other direction."
Another focus will be the miscommunication that led to the mistaken belief that 12 of the trapped miners had been rescued alive. That sparked a celebration at a nearby church that was halted three hours later by the devastating news of their deaths.
"I am asking for that because I have witnessed firsthand the unbelievable human suffering that comes from miscommunication," Manchin said.
So far, medical examiners have completed autopsies on the miners. The results have not been released, but it is widely believed the miners succcumbed to carbon monoxide. The mine remains closed to all, and it will not reopen until carbon monoxide and other deadly gases are removed.
Drillers finished two ventilation holes and worked on a substantially larger hole.
State officials have not started interviewing witnesses and said they did not know when they would begin.
"We don't want to make mistakes," said Terry Farley, an administrator at the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. "However long it takes, we want to get it right."
Also Monday, Manchin named J. Davitt McAteer, who oversaw the federal MSHA during the Clinton administration, to serve as his consultant, oversee the work of state and federal investigators, and issue a report on the disaster by July 1.
"We will pursue every lead," McAteer said. "We will follow every avenue of inquiry. We will take every step necessary to find the problems and to fix those problems."