Last funerals for mine victims planned as investigations begin

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. -- Investigations were called into both the Sago Mine disaster and overall national mining safety as the state prepared to say farewell to the last two victims of West Virginia's worst coal-mining accident in more than 35 years.

Among the issues to be probed will be the tragic miscommunication that led to the mistaken belief that 12 of the trapped miners had been rescued alive on Jan. 2.

"I am asking for that because I have witnessed firsthand the unbelievable human suffering that comes from miscommunication," Gov. Joe Manchin said Monday.

Mourners planned to gather for two funerals, including one held at the small Baptist church where families were mistakenly told all but one had survived.

The funeral for 59-year-old Fred Ware was scheduled for Sago Baptist Church in Tallmansville, followed by services for Terry Helms, 50, in Masontown. They were among the 12 miners killed.

No change for McCloy

There was no change Monday in the neurological condition of the only trapped miner to survive the disaster. Randal McCloy Jr. remained in critical condition, fighting a fever and undergoing dialysis.

Doctors treating McCloy at West Virginia University's Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown declined to speculate on when the 26-year-old would fully wake up from a medically induced coma, or comment on the extent of any brain damage he might have suffered.

But physicians said that McCloy's brain stem appeared to be normal, and that a fever is common for patients in intensive care. McCloy was breathing on his own, although he remained connected to a ventilator as a precaution, and was responding to stimuli, doctors said.

Public hearings

Federal and state mine safety officials said they would hold joint public hearings on the accident. Meanwhile, Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said federal mine safety officials would be called to testify before a Senate subcommittee that would hold hearings into the disaster beginning Jan. 19.

"It's time for the decisions affecting America's miners to be made with their best interests at heart," Byrd said in a statement. "That should be the legacy of the Sago miners."

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., also called for hearings into the specific issue of coal mine safety. He said Congress had not held a comprehensive oversight hearing of the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration since 2001.

Also Monday, Manchin named J. Davitt McAteer, who oversaw the federal MSHA during the Clinton administration, to serve as his consultant, oversee the work of state and federal investigators, and issue a report on the disaster by July 1.

McAteer said legitimate questions exist about the number of citations at Sago Mine, which had 208 alleged violations of federal mine rules in 2005. The mine's owner, International Coal Group Inc., has said it is working to correct the violations inherited from the mine's former owner.

"We have made tremendous strides in this country in terms of production," McAteer said. "We are in the 21st century in terms of the way we can produce the coal. We simply haven't brought the health and safety aspects of mining into the 21st century."

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