TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. – For nearly two days, the Sago Baptist Church sheltered family members praying for the safe return of 13 trapped miners. For a few hours, it was also a place of celebration after a mistaken report that all but one had miraculously survived.
Wednesday night, with the cruel reality that 12 of the miners had been found dead and one was in critical condition, grieving family members and others returned to the church with candles and hymnals to start healing the only way they know how — by praying.
One by one, people were given the chance to talk about the victims. Many were friends or fellow coal miners.
"I know the men under that hill and I called them my brothers," one miner said, his voice cracking with emotion. The service also included a solemn hymn with the line: "Cheer up my brother, live in the sunshine. We'll understand it, all day by day."
The nation's deadliest coal mining accident in more than four years began with an explosion 260 feet underground early Monday that federal investigators have yet to explain.
David Dye, who heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the investigation — which will likely focus on the buildup of naturally occurring methane gas and coal dust in the mine — will also probe "how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners' conditions."
Just before midnight Tuesday, families received word that 12 miners were alive. Bells at the church pealed and politicians proclaimed the rescue a miracle before the truth emerged three hours later. At that point, the families' joy turned instantly to fury, with one man lunging at coal company officials.
Ben Hatfield, chief executive of mine owner International Coal Group Inc., said that the Ashland, Ky.-based company did the best it could under extreme stress and exhaustion, and that officials "sincerely regret" the families were left to believe for so long that their loved ones were alive.
"In the process of being cautious, we allowed the jubilation to go on longer than it should have," a choked-up Hatfield said.
He said the initial mistake resulted from a miscommunication among the rescue crews. Another ICG executive, vice president Gene Kitts, suggested the misunderstanding resulted because the rescuers who reached the victims were wearing full-face oxygen masks and used radios to report their findings to their base.
The sole survivor, 26-year-old Randal McCloy, lay in critical condition in a Morgantown hospital with a collapsed lung, dehydration and other serious problems but no sign of carbon monoxide poisoning after being trapped for more than 42 hours. He was unable to speak because of a tube inserted in his throat to ease his breathing, but he could communicate by squeezing his wife's hand.
One of the dead was discovered several hundred feet from where the others had barricaded themselves in the maze-like mine. Hatfield said that miner, found near a belt used to move coal to the surface, was apparently killed by the force of the blast.
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. Such curtains, called battices, are used in mines to direct air flow, and miners are trained to use them in an emergency.
ICG's Kitts said the rescuers realized McCloy was alive when they heard his moans. Kitts said McCloy may have been the farthest away from the bad air. Doctors said McCloy's youth may also have helped him survive; most of the other miners were in their 50s.
Mine company officials would not say exactly how the 12 miners died or how long they survived, citing privacy concerns. They also wouldn't say if the miners left notes for their families.
A fund to provide financial support to the miners' families has been established by ICG with an initial contribution of $2 million, company Chairman Wilbur L. Ross announced Wednesday.-
"No amount of money can take the place of a loved one," he said in a prepared statement, "but the families do have financial needs as well."
The explosion was West Virginia's deadliest coal mining accident since 1968, when 78 men died in an explosion at a mine in Marion County, an hour's drive from here. That disaster prompted Congress to pass the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.
Sago was the nation's worst coal mining disaster since a pair of explosions tore through a mine in Brookwood, Ala., on Sept. 23, 2001, killing 13.
At Wednesday night's vigil, the Rev. Wease Day said the days ahead will bring funerals and mourning for the victims, but insisted they must also include a celebration of the lives that were lost. He spoke specifically of Fred Ware Jr., a fellow parishioner who lived across the road from the church, and was so good-natured he didn't mind being awakened to be asked to help with sanctuary repairs.
"We need to be sad. We need to pray for the families," Day said, "but we also need to be joyous."