In a stunning and heartbreaking reversal, family members were told early today that 12 of 13 trapped coal miners were dead - three hours after they began celebrating the news that they were alive.
The sole survivor, Randal McCloy, was in critical condition with a collapsed lung and dehydration but no sign of brain damage or carbon monoxide poisoning after being trapped by an explosion for more than 42 hours, a doctor said. At 27, McCloy was among the youngest in the group.
The last of the 12 bodies were taken out of the mine at midmorning. The cause of death was not disclosed, but it appeared it was not the blast that killed them.
Officials said the 12 were found together behind a curtain-like fabric barrier they had set up to keep out carbon monoxide gas, which was detected in deadly concentrations inside the mine.
It was the deadliest US coal mining disaster in more than four years.
The devastating new information about the dead shocked and angered family members, who had rejoiced with Gov. Joe Manchin hours earlier when a report began to spread that 12 miners were alive. Bystanders applauded as they saw McCloy brought from the mine early today, not realising he would be the only one to come out alive.
"I can only say there was no one who did anything intentionally other than risk their lives to save their loved ones," Manchin told ABC's "Good Morning America."
"No one can say anything about that would make anything any better," he said. "Just a horrible situation."
McCloy, who officials said was found in the same area as the other men, was unconscious but moaning when he arrived at a hospital, the hospital said.
McCloy was transferred to the intensive care unit of a hospital in Morgantown.
Doctors said he was under sedation and on a ventilator to aid his breathing and there was no immediate sign of brain damage.
"He responds to stimuli and that's good," Dr. Lawrence Roberts said. Most of the other miners were in their 50s, and doctors said that McCloy's youth may have helped him survive.
Charles Green, McCloy's father-in-law, told ABC that when he found out his son-in law was the only survivor, "I was still devastated. My whole family's heart goes out to them other families."
The 13 miners had been trapped 80 metres below the surface of the Sago Mine in central West Virginia since an explosion early on Monday. As rescue workers tried to get to the men, families waited at the Sago Baptist Church during a gruelling two-day vigil.
But late last night, families began streaming out of the church, yelling "They're alive!" The church bells began ringing and families embraced, as politicians proclaimed word of the apparent rescue a miracle.
Though the governor announced that there were 12 survivors, he later indicated he was uncertain about the news.
Ben Hatfield, chief executive of mine owner International Coal Group, blamed the wrong information on a "miscommunication." The news spread after people overheard cell phone calls, he said. In reality, rescuers had only confirmed finding 12 miners and were checking their vital signs. At least two family members in the church said they received cell phone calls from a mine foreman.
Three hours later, Hatfield told the families 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.
Chaos broke out in the church and a fight started. About a dozen state troopers and a SWAT team were positioned along the road near the church because police were concerned about violence. Witnesses said one man had to be wrestled to the ground when he lunged for mining officials.
Company officials waited to correct the information until they knew more about the rescue, Hatfield said. "Let's put this in perspective. Who do I tell not to celebrate? I didn't know if there were 12 or one" alive, Hatfield said.
It was the worst US coal mining disaster since a pair of explosions tore through a mine in Brookwood, Alabama, on September 23, 2001, killing 13.
Federal Labor Department officials promised an investigation. Acting Assistant Secretary David Dye, who heads the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said it will include "how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners' conditions."
The 12 miners had stretched a piece of fabric across an area about 6 metres wide to block out the gas, Hatfield said. The fabric is designed for miners to use as a barrier. Each miner had carried a breathing apparatus to purify the air and had been able to use it, according to mining officials.
A hole drilled into the mine nearby earlier during the ordeal found deadly levels of carbon monoxide, a byproduct of combustion. The odourless, colourless gas can be lethal at high doses. At lower levels, it can cause headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea, fatigue and brain damage.