Published January 13, 2015
A state mining inspector's shouts during the Sago Mine disaster might have been what led the relatives of 12 missing miners to believe they had all been found alive, he told a public hearing Wednesday.
"I don't recall the exact words I used," said Bill Tucker, an assistant inspector at large for the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training. "I was just screaming out for help.
"I think I may have said 'They're alive.'"
The miners' families had been waiting in a nearby church and erupted into cheers as word spread — someone may have overheard Tucker's shout and passed it along — that all 12 trapped miners were alive. Even Gov. Joe Manchin declared it a miracle.
Three hours later, the celebration dissolved in misery as the families learned that only one, Randal McCloy Jr., had survived.
Tucker was with the rescue team that discovered the bodies barricaded behind a curtain more than two miles inside the mine in early January. The men had been there for about 41 hours amid dangerous gases, and McCloy later said at least four of their air packs failed.
At first, Tucker said, he thought they had a rescue. Only after he started checking the miners' conditions did he realize that only McCloy still had a pulse.
"I picked up the radio and I hollered over the radio that we only have one (alive)," Tucker testified as a two-day hearing into the Sago Mine explosion and its aftermath entered its second day.
Another with the rescue crew, Ron Hixson, a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration rescue team member, apologized Wednesday to the miners' families for "the problems and heartache the miscommunication caused."
"That was not meant to be," Hixson said, fighting back tears as the 50 or so family members attending the hearing applauded.
How the miscommunication occurred was high on a list of questions the families hoped to have answered during the two days of hearings.
For more than 10 hours Tuesday, wives, siblings and children of the 12 Sago Mine victims took turns asking lawmakers and regulators about the disaster. Most challenged state and federal agencies to toughen safety laws and spare other coal mining families similar heartache. The hearing continued on Wednesday.
"We're not going to let this rest," vowed John Groves, whose brother Jerry died. "If another accident happens without safety changes, you are responsible."
Hatfield said he knew the initial report of survivors was wrong about 45 minutes later but wasn't sure what the correct information was. "We frankly didn't know what message to deliver to the families," Hatfield said.
Officials also were pressed for answers on why it took the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration 11 hours to start the search for the trapped crew and why it took so long to drill an air hole to the spot where the miners were believed to be.