Euphoria crushed as terrible truth dawns in US mine fiasco

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The Independent US

Who can truly envisage the wild range of emotions that swept Sago Baptist Church yesterday, when prayers were so cruelly dashed in the chaotic hours before dawn broke? People had gathered hoping for a miracle. Then that hope turned to hymn-singing euphoria, then disbelief, then anger and despair.

By the time friends and relatives of the 13 trapped miners staggered out of the church in the early hours - where they had been told, firstly, that 12 were alive, then hours later, that only one had survived and 12 had perished - most simply seemed stunned.

The owners of the Sago mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia, vowed to investigate not only the cause of the explosion early on Monday which trapped the men deep underground, two miles from the pithead, but also how the families of those miners had been so terribly misled as they gathered waiting for news.

Why, relatives demanded, were the church bells allowed to ring for a full three hours in celebration, although officials knew something was badly wrong? Officials called it a "miscommunication" but for the relatives it was the difference between life and death.

Mine officials admitted they knew something was wrong just 20 minutes after the celebration began and yet they declined to make a clarifying announcement for three more hours.

"People were here to celebrate," said Lynette Robey, who had gone to the church early yesterday with her two young children after it was reported that 12 of the 13 had survived. "Everybody went into the church for what would be a wonderful event. When we came in, they had been celebrating for three hours. How could no one have stopped to say there's an error or something? That would have been the proper, compassionate thing to do."

Now the question reverberating around the deep valleys and small towns where these miners lived was why the authorities allowed the relatives to celebrate their "miracle" although they suspected such celebrations were at best presumptive.

The night of drama began to unfold at 9pm on Tuesday when the mine owners, International Coal Group Inc, revealed that, 36 hours after the explosion, rescuers had discovered one corpse. This was a blow to other relatives waiting in the church, but officials said the search would continue.

Then, shortly before midnight, it seemed the prayers for a miracle had been answered. At 11.53pm the church bell began to ring and from inside the white wooden building came the noise of celebration and song. Relatives and friends and members of the church sang the words of the 19th-century Swedish pastor Carl Boberg's hymn "How Great Thou Art". John Casto, with three friends among the dead, said: "There was a burst of noise. Someone shouted, 'They're alive. They're alive'. A person said, 'There are miracles; 12 alive and one dead!'. They started clapping and hollering."

Families linked arms as they waited, expecting the men would soon be brought to the surface. Police cars and emergency vehicles sounded their sirens and people were punching the air and cheering. The state governor, Joe Manchin, was seen on the steps of the church giving the thumbs-up sign. "Miracles do happen," he announced.

But, less than three hours later, rumours started to spread that something was wrong and that perhaps the 12 men had not been saved. Then, at 3.11am, Ben Hatfield, the mine company's president, entered the church and told relatives he had more news. That was news no one wanted to hear.

"He said he took total responsibility for the error and there had been a miscommunication," said Ms Robey, who in the second row of the church. "There were screams of 'Liar, liar'. People called him a hypocrite. There were some bad words. He said things did not turn out as they were reported. Then he almost shouted, 'There's only one who's made it; the others are dead'."

Ms Robey said scuffles broke out in the church, and state troopers had to protect Mr Hatfield from the friends and relatives. At least one person lunged at him. The pastor tried to calm people and urged them, in their despair, to put their faith in God. One man reportedly shouted: "What in the hell has God ever done for us?"

Mr Hatfield later told a press conference they had delayed an announcement because they were awaiting full information. "Let's put this in perspective." he said. "Who do I tell not to celebrate? I didn't know if there were 12 or one [who survived]. Until we had people who could measure the vital signs... We didn't want to put the families through another rollercoaster."

Governor Manchin admitted neither he or his staff had independently verified the information that the men had been saved when he was celebrating with relatives. He said he had simply been caught up with their euphoria and trusted their information was correct.

"I can only say there was no one who did anything intentionally other than risk their lives to save their loved ones," he told ABC television. "No one can say anything that would make anything any better. Just a horrible situation."

He added: "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." But reporters had suspected hard information was available much earlier.

After the "good news", the media had been permitted to interview relatives but, within 20 minutes, police were asking reporters to return to the road, several hundred yards from the church.

Some reporters said that, with hindsight, they suspected that was the time officials started to realise wrong information had been relayed. Quite how that happened remains unclear. Several relatives said they had phone calls from a mine worker who told them after the first body had been discovered that the remaining men had been found alive. Other, unconfirmed, reports said someone entered the church and directly passed on this false information. Someone may have overheard a communication from rescue workers 12 miners had been found and presumed - wrongly - that this meant they were alive. Officials said the 13 men were together, behind a barrier they had built in the shaft with a piece of fabric in an effort to block off the toxic carbon monoxide. They were near where the company had drilled an air hole on Tuesday in an attempt to contact them.

Only one, a 27-year-old called Randall McCoy, was alive. Mr McCoy, who was unconscious, was the youngest of the miners, and doctors said that was likely a factor in his survival. He is in hospital in Morgantown, 50 miles away and he is said to be in a stable, but critical, condition. "He responds to stimuli and that's good," a doctor said.

Mr McCoy's father-in-law, Charles Green, had mixed emotions when he learnt he was the only survivor. "I was still devastated," he said. "My whole family's hearts goes out to them other families."