Nearly two days after an explosion trapped 13 men in a coal mine in the eastern U.S. state of West Virginia, only one of the miners was found alive. An error in communication from rescuers underground to the rescue command center at the surface initially raised hopes that 12 had survived.
The bells of the Sago Baptist Church near the mine pealed just before midnight after the initial news spread that 12 of the 13 trapped miners had been found alive. An explosion more than 40 hours earlier had trapped the men about 4,000 meters inside the mine.
However, rejoicing by rescuers, federal, local and state officials and especially among their families turned to stunned disbelief and grief following the news that only one miner was actually found alive.
Ben Hatfield, chief executive officer of the company that operates the mine, said early Wednesday that a tragic miscommunication had raised hopes of a miracle, only to be dashed three hours later:
"The initial report from the rescue team to the command center indicated multiple survivors, but that information proved to be a miscommunication," he explained. "The only confirmed survivor is Randall L. McCloy Junior who has now been rushed to a local hospital in serious condition. The 11 remaining miners in the barricade structure were determined by the medical technicians on the rescue team to have already deceased."
Mr. Hatfield says the company, International Coal Group, never released any information about the status of the miners until it was absolutely convinced the information was accurate.
"What happened is that through stray cell phone conversations it appears that this miscommunication from the rescue team underground to the command center was picked up by various people that simply overheard the conversation that was relayed over cell phone communications without our ever having made a [public news] release," he explained. "International Coal Group never made any release about all 12 of the miners being alive and well. We simply couldn't confirm that."
He says the information was considered by members of the public as reliable since it came from the command center. Mr. Hatfield says the company is incredibly saddened by what he calls "the horrific loss of these sons, husbands, brothers and fathers." He says a thorough investigation of the accident will be conducted by federal and state mine regulatory officials with the full support of his company.
The state's governor, Joe Manchin, cautioned against blaming the rescuers, saying the initial information relayed by underground rescuers may have been misinterpreted.
"If somebody might have said something that we have one [miner] or two [miners] and all 12 are here, you don't know how that could have been interpreted or how it was heard." he said.
The governor says the 13th miner, whose body was discovered and removed late Tuesday, probably died from the initial blast on Monday. Dangerous levels of lethal carbon monoxide hampered rescue efforts.
Mine disasters in the United States have declined in recent decades with the imposition of mine safety regulations. The most recent occurred in the southern state of Alabama in December of 2001. Thirteen miners died in that accident.
A frequent cause of such mishaps is a buildup of naturally occurring methane gas that is odorless and highly flammable. It becomes a greater problem during periods of colder weather because barometric pressure causes more of the gas to be released.