Joy turns to anger after false initial information that 12 miners were still alive

By Stephen M. Silverman
Updated January 04, 2006 08:20 AM

In a miscommunication that resulted in a roller-coaster ride of emotions culminating in grief and anger, family members were told early Wednesday that 12 of the 13 trapped West Virginia coal miners found were dead – some three hours after they began rejoicing over reports that they were alive.

But the rumor of a miracle proved to be false. “About the confusion, I can’t tell you of anything more heart-wrenching than I’ve ever gone through in my life. Nothing,” said Gov. Joe Manchin.

“It’s sorrow beyond belief,” said International Coal Group Chief Executive Officer Ben Hatfield.

“We sincerely regret the manner in which the events unfolded early this morning,” Hatfield said during an afternoon news conference. He said there were initial reports from the mine rescue team that the trapped miners were found alive – and the erroneous report was relayed to the families by “jubilant employees.” It wasn’t until nearly an hour later that officials learned the initial report might be false.

Hatfield said officials asked state police to tell clergy at the church where the families were celebrating that the information could be incorrect. However, that message didn’t make it to families until hours later. We “fully recognize the criticism” about the way the families were communicated with,” Hatfield added.

The 12 miners were found together behind a barrier they had constructed to block carbon monoxide gas. They were found near where the company had drilled an air hole early Tuesday in an attempt to contact the men, reports the Associated Press.

The sole survivor of the disaster, identified by mining officials as 27-year-old Randal McCloy, was hospitalized in critical condition early Wednesday, a doctor said. When he arrived, he was unconscious but moaning, the hospital said.

Just before midnight, families who for two days had gathered to pray at the Sago Baptist Church began running out of the church and crying amid relieved shouts of “They’re alive!” Church bells rang in celebration, and as an ambulance drove away from the mine carrying what families believed was the first survivor, they applauded – unaware there were no others.

The governor later indicated he was uncertain about the news at first. When word of survivors began circulating through the church, he hadn’t heard it, he said. “All of a sudden we heard the families in a euphoric state, and all the shouting and screaming and joyfulness, and I asked my detachments, I said, ‘Do you know what’s happening?’ Because we were wired in and we didn’t know,” Manchin said.

Hatfield blamed the wrong information on a “miscommunication.”

Three hours after the families were informed that the miners had survived, Hatfield told them that “there had been a lack of communication, that what we were told was wrong and that only one survived,” said John Groves, whose brother Jerry Groves was one of the trapped miners. “There was no apology. There was no nothing. It was immediately out the door,” said Nick Helms, son of miner Terry Helms.

Chaos broke out in the church and a fight erupted. About a dozen state troopers and a SWAT team were positioned along the road near the church because police were concerned about violence. A Red Cross volunteer, Tamila Swiger, told CNN people were breaking down and suffering panic attacks.

The explosion was the state’s deadliest mining accident since November 1968, when 78 men (including the uncle of Gov. Joe Manchin) died in an explosion at Consol’s Farmington No. 9 mine in Marion County – a disaster that prompted Congress to pass the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969. This current tragedy is also the nation’s worst since a pair of explosions tore through the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 mine in Brookwood, Ala. on Sept. 23, 2001, killing 13.