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12 confirmed dead in West Virginia mine blast

| Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2006

SAGO, W.Va. -- Joyous celebration turned to horror this morning when families learned that only one of 13 miners survived entrapment in a West Virginia mine.

A report that a dozen miners had survived circulated for nearly three hours late last night before the mining company revealed the devastating truth.

Inside the Sago Baptist Church, family members became enraged and lunged at a coal company official, witnesses said.

"They are liars," said Ann Merideth, one of many relatives who lashed out at International Coal Group, government officials and the news media who converged on the tiny town since an explosion early Monday trapped 13 miners 260 feet below the surface.

At 2:45 a.m., company officials at the Sago Mine in rural Upshur County broke the news to relatives of the 13 miners that only miner Randal McCoy Jr., 27, survived the ordeal. Rescuers found him at the end of the 13,000-foot-long mine.

Sam Lantz, whose brother-in-law Martin Benett died in the mine, said company officials gave little explanation for the mistaken information or the delay.

"They came in and said we didn't have the good news we thought we had," Lantz said. "They said they was sorry, but that's all."

The rescue team that found the missing 12 miners shortly before 11:50 p.m. radioed to a command center about their discovery. Rescuers has discovered one body earlier in the evening near the site of the explosion. The news spread after people overheard cell phone conversations, said Ben Hatfield, chief executive of International Coal Group.

In reality, the rescue teams were checking the 12 bodies for vital signs.

The correction that only one of the men was alive was conveyed to a command center 20 minutes later, Hatfield said. Company officials waited almost three hours to relay the new grim message to the families, many of whom had been singing, hugging and making happy phone calls since hearing the false news.

"I regret that it happened. I wish it hadn't," Hatfield said. "Welcome to the worst day of my life."

Hatfield said he delayed giving the families the correct information until officials could confirm the deaths with separate rescue teams that had to reach the miners and check for vital signs.

"I did not want to put the families through another emotional roller coaster," he said. "I didn't know if the number of dead was 12 or one. We needed to know how many and who before we went back to the families."

When the first message came from rescuers that the men were alive, someone from the command center called someone in the church, Hatfield said.

People ran from the church screaming "12 are alive!" and many began singing "How Great Thou Art" on the steps of the building, which sits across the Buckhannon River from the mine.

When the families learned of the miners' true fates, most people left the church without talking to reporters.

Gov. Joseph Manchin said he was troubled by the misinformation and subsequent delay in its correction..

"I can't tell you of anything more heart-wrenching that I've gone through in my life," Manchin said.

Neither Hatfield nor Manchin would identify the rescue team that told officials the miners were alive. Both insisted this is not a time for "finger-pointing."

"We had one miracle. We would have liked to have had 13," Manchin said. "That's our focus now."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Timeline

Monday

6:31 a.m.: An explosion shakes the Sago mine, about 140 miles south of Pittsburgh. Company officials said they suspect the blast may have been sparked by a lightning strike. Thirteen miners are known to be trapped 260 feet underground.

Tuesday

7:42 a.m.: No signs of life are observed by a camera dropped into a hole drilled in the mine. Rescue teams find dangerous levels of carbon monoxide in the area.

9:10 p.m. : Ben Hatfield, president and CEO of International Coal Group, which owns the Sago Mine, announces that the body of one of the miners has been found in a mine car. It is later confirmed the body is Terry Helms, 48, of Newburg, W.Va., a 35-year veteran and fire boss. Search continues for 12 other men.

11:50 p.m.: Rescue team radios to the mine's command center that it found the other 12 miners alive, a message that was quickly relayed to relatives gathered in the Sago Baptist Church, said Ben Hatfield, chief executive of International Coal Group.

11:53 p.m. : Church bells ring as reports first indicate that 12 miners have been found alive.

Wednesday

12:10 a.m.: The correction that only one of the men was alive was conveyed to command center: "We have 12 individuals but they are not all alive," Hatfield later said the second message read. "One is alive. The others are deceased."

1:25 a.m.: Sole survivor Randal McCloy Jr. arrives at St. Joseph's Hospital in Buckhannon.

2:45 a.m.: Officials broke the news to relatives of the 13 miners that only one man was alive when rescuers reached the end of 13,000-foot-long mine. Inside the Sago Baptist Church, family members became enraged and lunged at a coal company official, witnesses said.

3 a.m.: McCloy was transferred by ambulance to Jon Michael Moore Trauma Center at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.

8:10 a.m.: Dr. Larry Roberts, director of the trauma center, says McCloy was sedated and on a breathing tube but was breathing "spontaneously."

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