Sago families remain hungry for answers

Sago Mine survivor Randal McCloy Jr. and his wife Anna take a break during the U.S. Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health (MSHA) briefing Wednesday.

Calling the Sago Mine explosion an act of God never did sit well with the families of 12 trapped men who slowly suffocated. For 16 months, they have waited for a better explanation.

But few of them found it in the more than 8-pound report they were handed Wednesday by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. Like several others before it, the report blamed lightning strikes for igniting methane gas in a sealed chamber underground on Jan. 2, 2006.

And like the others before it, the report left questions unanswered. Mainly, people struggled to comprehend the notion that an electrical current radiated through the earth toward a forgotten water-pump cable that functioned like an antenna, then sparked like a fuse.

“You can probably go through this whole report and still not get an answer,” said Geraldine Bruso, patting the binder under her arm. “I think it’s a lot of money and a lot of wasted time.”

Bruso, sister of miner Jerry Groves, had hoped for facts but got only a more specific theory of what caused the blast than those offered by state investigators and mine operator International Coal Group Inc.

“Lightning didn’t kill our guys,” she said. “They were in there, but the lightning didn’t kill them.”

Rather, Bruso and other relatives say, the men died because of everything that happened before and after the blast — outdated federal regulations, repeated safety violations, air packs that didn’t work as expected and the 11-hour delay before the rescue effort began.

“I feel that bad practices by ICG and their approval by MSHA murdered my husband,” said Debbie Hamner, widow of George Junior Hamner, who left a more than three-hour meeting frustrated by what she described as convoluted, monotone answers from federal officials.

“I can’t tell where the coal company ends and MSHA begins,” Hamner said. “They need to get back to their priority, which should be protecting the health and safety of our nation’s coal miners.”

The MSHA report blamed three “root causes” for the accident: simultaneous lightning strikes near the mine, a poorly built wall on a mined-out area and explosive gases that built up unchecked behind that wall.

The blast trapped a team of miners deep inside as they were preparing to resume production after the New Year’s holiday. By the time searchers reached them about 40 hours later, only one man — Randal McCloy Jr. — was still alive.

It was the highest-profile coal mining accident in recent U.S. history and led to sweeping changes in federal and state mine safety law. ICG idled the Sago Mine in March because of high production costs and low coal prices.

MSHA issued 32 new violations against the company Wednesday, bringing the total to 149 since the start of the investigation. But none was found to have caused the accident or contributed to its severity — a fact that McCloy attorney Steve Goodwin called “astounding.”

“It sounds like one of the most unsafe places in America to work, and yet none of those had anything to do with the accident,” he said.

Lightning has been considered the prime source of the explosion since ICG released its findings in March 2006. The state Miners’ Health Safety and Training issued a report earlier this year that upheld that finding.

For ICG, the report was vindication of its own investigation, concluding human error was not to blame.

“We hope this report provides some of the answers that the families of the accident victims need and deserve,” said President Ben Hatfield.

But Goodwin said most miners’ families seemed frustrated that after three reports, they still have few facts.

“As one woman said, ‘Lightning is hardly the issue.’ It was the way the situation was responded to and the way the mine was run before the accident,” Goodwin said.

MSHA has the authority to fix all the problems its report cites, from what materials are used to build seals to what explosive forces they should be able to withstand.

“It’s their regulation to change,” he said. “It’s circular. It all comes back to them.”

MSHA said it will issue emergency rules for only the fourth time since its creation in 1978 to reduce the risk of future methane explosions. Among other things, the rules will require mines to remove insulated cables from abandoned areas before they are sealed.

Mines that choose to seal abandoned areas would be required to build far stronger seals than at Sago, monitor the atmosphere behind them, and pump in inert gas if they detect explosive levels of methane. Alternatively, MSHA said mines could build seals capable of withstanding explosions.

But Pam Campbell, whose brother-in-law Marty Bennett died at Sago, doubts much will change.

“It’s going to make a difference on paper, but it’s not going to make a difference to the miners who risk their lives every day trying to support their families,” she said. “I think an accident will happen again, and I think the same issues will come up.”

The United Mine Workers union, which participated in the state and federal investigation, has issued the only dissenting viewpoint on what happened at Sago. Its experts believe the spark came from friction in the mine’s deteriorating rock roof and the metal support system used to hold it up.

“Given the history of the roof conditions in that mine, I believe that’s what happened,” said Sara Bailey, Hamner’s daughter. “I don’t believe MSHA and I don’t trust MSHA, and I think they are a disappointment to our nation’s coal miners.”

MSHA said it could not definitely rule out a roof fall as the potential cause but said lightning “has been determined to be the most likely ignition source.”

Atmospheric alarms in the mine sounded at nearly the same instant as a documented lightning strike, at 6:26 a.m. on Jan. 2, 2006. But the UMW — which was allowed to legally represent some workers at the nonunion mine — dismissed the lightning theory as “so remote as to be practically impossible.”

The UMW argued that unlike other coal mine blasts linked to lightning, there was no metal conduit at Sago that could have carried the charge for two miles into the mine to the point of the explosion.

The National Lightning Detection Network recorded two lightning strikes within a split second of each other that morning. One strike was one mile south of the mine’s opening and the other was one mile to the north.

Investigators believe the two strikes created a powerful electrical arc that traveled along the abandoned pump cable.

“During a lightning strike the insulated conductors of the submerged pump cable could receive volts as high as 20,500 volts,” the report said. “This voltage would be of a short duration that the energy generated would be adequate to cause an arc and ignite methane.”

The report noted that it appeared the company had tried to remove the 1,300-foot cable that once ran to a submersible pump before sealing the abandoned section of the mine.

Such underground cables can serve as an antennae to lightning strikes hitting the surface. If a cable is frayed, the damaged areas would “act like fuses and burn apart, causing an arc,” the report said.

Ron Bowersox, international safety representative for the UMW, said that cable — initially ignored by MSHA — is contaminated evidence. Sometime during the summer, months after the blast, Bowersox watched state officials remove the cable and set it outdoors, where it remained for several days. It should not be used now to support a theory, he said.

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