In a stunning and heartbreaking reversal, family members were told early Wednesday that 12 of 13 trapped coal miners were dead — three hours after they began celebrating news that they were alive.
The sole survivor, Randal McCloy, was in critical condition but showing no sign of brain damage or carbon monoxide poisoning after being trapped for 1 1/2 days, a doctor said. At 27, McCloy was the youngest in the group.
The devastating new information about the others 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. Rescue crews found the first victim earlier Tuesday evening.
"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 was unconscious but moaning when he arrived at a hospital, the hospital said.
McCloy was transferred to the intensive care unit of West Virginia University's Ruby Memory Hospital at Morgantown, where he remained in critical condition. 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 at a briefing. There was no sign of carbon monoxide poisoning, he said. Most of the other miners were in their 50s, and doctors said that McCloy's age may have helped him.
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."
Thirteen miners had been trapped 260 feet below the surface of the Sago Mine since an explosion early Monday. The mine is located about 100 miles northeast of Charleston. As rescue workers tried to get to the men, families waited at the Sago Baptist Church during an emotional two-day vigil.
But late Tuesday night, families began streaming out of the church, yelling "They're alive!" The church's bells began ringing and families embraced, as politicians proclaimed word of the apparent rescue a miracle.
As an ambulance drove away from the mine carrying what families believed was the first survivor, they applauded, not yet knowing there were no others.
Though the governor announced that there were 12 survivors, he later indicated he was uncertain about the news. As word buzzed through the church of survivors, he tried to find out what was going on, he said.
"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," Manchin said.
International Coal Group Chief Executive Officer Ben Hatfield 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.
"That information spread like wildfire, because it had come from the command center," he said.
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.
"There was no apology. There was no nothing. It was immediately out the door," said Nick Helms, son of miner Terry Helms.
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 (who were alive)," Hatfield said.
The explosion was the state's deadliest mining accident since November 1968, when 78 men — including the uncle of Manchin — died in an explosion at Consol's Farmington No. 9 mine in Marion County, an hour's drive north of here. Nineteen bodies remain entombed in the mountain. It was that disaster that prompted Congress to pass the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.
It was also the worst nationwide since a pair of explosions tore through the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 mine in Brookwood, Ala., on Sept. 23, 2001, killing 13.
Federal Department of Labor 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 were found together behind a barrier they had constructed to block carbon monoxide gas. They were found near where the company had drilled an air hole early Tuesday in an attempt to contact the men.
The miners had stretched a piece of fabric across an area about 20 feet 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 and had been able to use it, according to mining officials.
The hole also was used to check air quality in the mine, which revealed high concentrations of carbon monoxide. The odorless, colorless gas can be lethal at high doses. At lower levels, it can cause headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea, fatigue and brain damage.
Manchin, who had earlier said that the state believed in miracles, tried to focus on the news that one had survived.
"We're clinging to one miracle when we were hoping for 13," he said.
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