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PAULA ZAHN NOW

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon Rushed Into Surgery; Interview With International Coal Group Chairman; Moments Leading up to Sago Mine Explosion; Did the Rescue Take Too Long?; Sign in Minnesota Posting Iraq War Deaths Spurs Mixed Reactions; An Elderly Oklahoma Man Prepares to Start his Life Over after Fires

Aired January 4, 2006 - 20:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: And good evening, everyone. We really appreciate your being with us.
In just a moment, we're going to have the very latest on the coal mine tragedy, and we are going to hear, for the first time, in an exclusive interview, from Wilbur Ross, chairman of the company that owns the Sago Mine in West Virginia.

But we start with major breaking news from Israel, where Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is in surgery right now, just hours after suffering a significant stroke. Sharon's senior advisers says Sharon was at home tonight when he felt chest pain and weakness, and then -- was then rushed to a hospital, where doctors a cerebral hemorrhage, bleeding on the brain.

For the very latest now, let's turn to John Vause. He joins us from Jerusalem.

John, can you hear me?

Apparently, John Vause is not quite ready for us. But we hope to get to him, so he can tell us what Israeli officials are confirming at this hour.

But, instead, let me turn to senior medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who is a brain surgeon himself, for more on Prime Minister Sharon's condition.

OK. Without the benefit of John Vause describing what the latest update has told him, tell us what your understanding is right now of what the prime minister is facing.

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: He is in surgery, from what I'm understanding.

He has been in the operating room for a couple of hours now. The goal of that operation is to take some pressure off the brain from a significant blood clot. Let me just show you a couple things here, Paula.

I have got a couple of models. I don't know if you can see these, if we can take a look here. This is a model of the brain. Sometimes, you actually get some bleeding within the brain itself. The goal of the operation is to try and take some of the pressure off. If we can go to this model over here, this is actually a model of the skull.

And, Paula, what they have got to do is actually remove some of the bone around where this blood clot is, take out that piece of bone, and try and take some of the blood out. That is the goal of the operation, a difficult operation for sure, given the fact that he has been on blood thinners.

Paula, his history dates back a few weeks now. As you know, back on December 18, he had a small stroke. It was believed that that stroke happened because he had a hole in his heart, where some blood clots were accumulating. One of those blood clots flicked off, dislodged, if you will, went to his brain, caused a stroke.

He was put on blood thinners. And that is probably, at least in part, what caused his stroke today -- Paula.

ZAHN: So, Doctor, you have done this surgery before. You just described it as a difficult operation. Can he survive this operation?

GUPTA: You know, it's hard to say, Paula.

And let me preface. Maybe it goes without saying, I have not seen Ariel Sharon. I have not seen his CAT scan. I have not examined him, certainly. So, it's hard for me to say. But if this was -- this sort of patient were described to me as a neurosurgeon, I would say that the operation is made difficult because he's on these blood thinners.

To stop the bleeding becomes that much more difficult because of those blood thinners. And that's why it's challenging. Given his past medical history, given the severity of what it sounds like this stroke has done to him, I would say it's -- it's very -- he's in a very guarded situation.

I'm obviously guarding my words carefully, Paula, as I think anybody should, but I'm very, very concerned about him.

ZAHN: Well, Sanjay, we would like for you to stand by throughout the hour, as we continue to get updates on his condition.

And, right now, let's move to Jerusalem, where I believe we now have John Vause online.

John, Dr. Sanjay Gupta just described to us the medical procedure he thinks is taking place right now to drain some of that blood from the brain. What are officials confirming is going on right now?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Paula, it's been a few hours now since we have had an -- an update from the -- the officials here at Hadassah Hospital.

What we do know is that the prime minister was rushed to surgery just over three hours ago. Now, shortly after Ariel Sharon arrived here at the Hadassah Hospital, the spokesperson for the hospital gave us a few details of the prime minister's condition. This is what he said.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): The prime minister arrived about a half-an-hour ago at Hadassah (INAUDIBLE) hospital. The diagnosis is a significant stroke. For the purpose of the diagnosis and treatment, the prime minister has been given an anesthetic and put on a respirator. He's now in the imaging department for a more precise diagnosis of the nature and extent of the event this evening.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

VAUSE: Now, senior aides to the prime minister say that, right now, his condition is stable and that the operation is proceeding well.

But, obviously, the longer this goes on, the greater the concern is for the health of the prime minister, a 77-year-old man, about to turn 78 next month. Doctors say he should emerge from the surgery safely, an ambiguous term. No one is precisely telling us what safely means.

For now, though, there is no statement on the long-term prognosis for Ariel Sharon. Right now, though, executive powers of the prime minister have been transferred to the deputy prime minister, Ehud Olmert -- Paula.

ZAHN: The question tonight is, John, if he doesn't do as well as these folks want him to do, what happens if he is incapacitated in some way or perhaps even dies?

VAUSE: Well, the situation, as it stands right now, Ehud Olmert will be the acting prime minister for 100 days. Now, under normal circumstances, after that 100 days, this country would then hold a general election. This country is going to an election anyway on March 28. Every indication is that that election will be held on time with or without Ariel Sharon -- Paula.

ZAHN: John Vause, we're going to leave it there and come back to you later on in the hour, as soon as you are fed more information. Thanks so much for the update.

I want to move on now to our other big story tonight, the coal mine tragedy in West Virginia, and tonight's terrible, unanswered question: Why was the news so incredibly wrong? The miners' family spent the better part of three hours this morning believing that 12 of the 13 trapped men were, in fact, alive. The problem is, 12 of the 13 were dead.

Here's the very latest for you tonight. There is a candlelight vigil for the victims right now in West Virginia. The men died after an explosion deep inside the mine on Monday morning. Their bodies have now been taken out of the mine and loaded into a refrigerated truck at a temporary mortuary site nearby. The lone survivor, 27-year-old Randal McCloy Jr., is in stable condition tonight. He's on a breathing tube, not able to speak at this hour, but he was able to squeeze his wife's hand earlier today.

In just a few minutes, Wilbur Ross, the chairman of the company that owns the Sago Mine, will join me for an exclusive interview here in New York.

But, first, I want for all of us to see exactly what has happened over the last 23 hours, as the tragedy was compounded by what other mine officials now say was a case of gross miscommunication.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN (voice-over): The first news broke just seconds before 9:00.

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN (on camera): All right, Brian, I hate to interrupt you. I have got -- we have some breaking news confirmed by the Red Cross and the Reuters News Agency. And it's not the news any of us wanted to hear, that one body has been found in the West Virginia mine.

(voice-over): It turns out that would be the last accurate information we would hear for nearly six hours. And 11 minutes before midnight, the initial burst of misinformation startled everyone.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back.

We have some breaking news. We do not know exactly what is going on here in Upshur County. They are ringing the bells of the church. This is the first time that has occurred. We heard some shouting over at the church. We are awaiting to find out exactly what is going on.

ZAHN (voice-over): Less than three minutes later, people were running out of the church with incredible news.

COOPER: Sir, what have you heard? Please, come tell us.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Terry (ph). Come on up, this is a friend of Terry Helms.

COOPER: You're a friend of Terry Helms. Terry was -- what have you heard?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They just come out of the mines. They say we got 12 alive. It's good news.

COOPER: Where did you -- who told you that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They just came out of the mines and sent an official down, said we got 12 alive. They're going in now with -- going in now with the rescue crews.

ZAHN: For three precious hours, the families rejoiced. What they didn't know was that mine officials no longer had a clear idea of just how many others were dead or alive, and so were saying nothing.

Mine officials say it was between 2:15 and 2:30 that they finally were sure there were no other survivors. Only then did the truth finally reach the church.

John Casto was inside.

He told his story to Miles O'Brien on "AMERICAN MORNING."

JOHN CASTO, FRIEND OF MINERS: But the loved ones and the family was out on the porch wrapped in blankets awaiting for their fathers or their brothers to come up and just give them a hug, because that's what we was told. They was -- they was alive.

And when we began to see the black vehicles come up through there and the state police, and they all come in there, we still thought they was alive. We still was looking for them to come through the door, just like we was told.

There was somebody come up there, I think it was a mine official, and said, well, I'm sorry of the delay, because he was supposed to have been there earlier, I think 11:00, maybe. But this was like 2:30 or whatever it was. It doesn't really matter, really, to me.

But he come up there and said he was sorry for the delay. And he said, I've told you the truth clear through. I told you that I was going to tell you the truth, and I'm here to tell you the truth now. And he said that there was one survivor.

And I believe that everybody was stunned, because they didn't really understand what he was saying. Some people didn't really know what he said. But there was a couple of people understood what he said, and they began to shout and curse and -- but just a -- just a few minutes before that, they was praising God, and then they was cursing.

ZAHN: The pandemonium inside the church spilled outside. It was 2:47 in the morning.

COOPER: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Charlie (ph), Charlie (ph), we have got to come back -- come back to us.

(CROSSTALK)

COOPER: Wait. Wait. Come here. What -- what -- what's happening?

LYNETTE ROBY, WITNESSED DEATH ANNOUNCEMENT: There's only one -- there's only one made it out alive. And I think the name was Randal Ware (sic). The governor's in there, and this big in-charge CEO of the mine is apologizing. And it's all -- they did nothing but -- I don't know how this information could come out that there were people were alive.

COOPER: Wait. Where -- where have...

ROBY: There's only one person alive, and he's already en route to the hospital.

COOPER: Where have you gotten this information?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: The church.

ROBY: From the CEO who has been on the news.

COOPER: You were inside the church?

ROBY: Yes, we were inside the church, and...

COOPER: And you said there's fist fighting now?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes.

ROBY: People are screaming, you're a liar. You've lied to us.

COOPER: Wait. Come over here, please. Stand over here.

ROBY: It's been misinformation, and it's awful.

COOPER: And you -- you kids were in the church, too.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes.

COOPER: And you heard this?

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: Yes, we tried to run away.

ROBY: We -- we -- I took the kids, and we ran out of the church as fast as we can. There were...

COOPER: I can hear yelling now over at the church.

ROBY: Yes, they're screaming and yelling, and the police are in a big brawl.

ZAHN: A night that started with anxiety and soared to exhilaration ended in anguish and anger.

SAM LANCE, BROTHER-IN-LAW OF MINER: Everybody is stunned right now. Everybody is stunned and sickened to their stomach. We feel like we have been lied to, feel like we have been lied to all along.

ZAHN: At a news conference a few hours ago, mine officials said it's a case of bad communication.

BEN HATFIELD, PRESIDENT & CEO, INTERNATIONAL COAL GROUP: The occurrences at the Sago Mine over the past couple of days are truly a great tragedy. It is unfortunate. And we are saddened by the fact that the communication problems we experienced last night only added to the terrible tragedy -- tragedy.

ZAHN: Mine officials say they understand the criticism they are getting, but they said they made the best decisions they could.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And joining me now for an exclusive interview is Wilbur Ross, chairman of the International Coal Group, which owns the Sago Mine.

Thank you so much for joining us tonight, sir.

WILBUR ROSS, CHAIRMAN, INTERNATIONAL COAL GROUP: Thanks, Paula.

ZAHN: Do you feel personally responsible for what happened to these 12 men?

ROSS: I feel there was a terrible, terrible tragedy that occurred. It -- the only thing I have experienced comparable to it, in my own lifetime, is when I was a teenager and my father died and left my mom a widow with three kids, the youngest being 8.

ZAHN: What kind of responsibility do you think your company bears for the fate of these 12 men and -- and the limbo this 13th man remains in tonight?

ROSS: Right.

Well, our prayers go out to the families of the deceased and also to the one man who seems to be recovering. And we have begun an investigation jointly with the federal authorities and the state authorities to try to determine the exact cause of this tragedy.

And, as soon as we learn that, that will provide some clues to what can be done to prevent recurrences of this in the future.

ZAHN: So, beyond that, if any of these family members of these victims are watching tonight, many of whom are accusing your company of murder, what do you want them to know? What do you want them to hear?

ROSS: Well, we are not murderers. That's pretty obvious.

And what we have done to try to express some support for the families is, we have created the Sago Mine Fund, to which we have put in the initial $2 million. And we're soliciting contributions from the public and from people we do business with to try to generate as large a fund as we can to supplement the economic things that will happen to the family.

ZAHN: The president of your company admitted a little bit earlier tonight that, for almost three hours, he and -- and the rest of your team allowed for rumors to take root, rumors that, in fact, these 12 miners were alive, even though they didn't have proof one way or the other.

Didn't they have an obligation at least to face these families and say, we simply don't know the truth right now?

ROSS: Well, we didn't spread the rumor. You saw...

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: Yes. I'm not accusing you of spreading it, but didn't you have an obligation to stop that if your team didn't know at that point whether they were dead or alive?

ROSS: The joint decision -- the joint decision that was made in the command center by the federal authorities, the state authorities and our management was to communicate facts. That was our approach during the whole process.

And it's unfortunate that unauthorized communication caused this rumor to spread. There were rules in the command center that no one was to go outside and tell anything, because the whole system throughout this had been, we first brief the families and then brief the media. We tried to do it in a very controlled circumstance.

And what happened was, somebody went out and was so excited at what was hopefully good news that it spread as a rumor.

ZAHN: In retrospect -- you say it was a joint decision. Should it have been a decision where one person went out and faced these families and said, look, you know, we don't want to encourage false hope here; the fact is, we cannot tell you one way or the other right now whether they are dead or alive?

ROSS: The decision that was made was the decision that everybody there agreed was the right decision under the facts. To make another countervailing rumor I don't think would have done a lot of good.

The unfortunate thing is that the rumor started in the first place. That's really what caused the supplemental tragedy of raising people's hopes and then having them be dashed.

ZAHN: Finally tonight, your mine has a long history of safety violations.

In the year 2004, it showed that the injury rate was -- was significantly more than other mines its size. And, then, in 2005, it was cited for 168 safety violations, 91 of them serious and substantial.

Now, to be perfectly fair, you didn't buy this mine -- the deal didn't close until November.

ROSS: Well...

(CROSSTALK)

ZAHN: But was that troubling to you, going into this?

ROSS: Well, the examiners had -- the federal authorities who came in to examine had completed their research on about the 22nd of December.

The federal authorities, as you know, have the power to close a mine if they believe it's unsafe. Every mine, including this one, is inspected four times a year in very, very great detail. And there is an inspector there every day when the mines are operating.

We had no reason to believe that this mine was unsafe. This is a tragedy. And what's really sad is, International Coal Group, earlier this year, in September, received the Sentinels of Safety Award by the Mine Safety and Health Administration of Department of Labor and the National Mining Association for the outstanding safety at a very similar deep mine that we have in Knott County. Unfortunately, the truth is...

ZAHN: And you say this is one of the darkest days of your life?

ROSS: It is, indeed, and it will remain such.

ZAHN: Wilbur Ross, thank you.

ROSS: Thank you.

ZAHN: Appreciate your coming in tonight.

ROSS: Thank you, Paula.

ZAHN: If you would like to contribute to the Sago Mine Fund to help the families of the miners, here's the number to call, right at the bottom of your screen, 1-800-811-0441.

When we come back, the lone survivor, what is his condition, after spending nearly two days trapped in the Sago Mine, completely dehydrated, with not enough oxygen to breathe?

Still ahead, what is it like to be nearly 100, well, thanks to the Oklahoma grass fires, starting over with no home? We will tell you this couple's story.

Also, a man puts a sign in a window and sparks a furious debate in one Minnesota community. Find out why a little bit later on.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNA CASTO, COUSIN OF MINER: We mourned together. We communicated together. We cried together, like yesterday, when this first happened. But, then, we got our hopes built up. And you just don't do that to people. You just don't do it. But we got it done to us.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: And despite the anger and heartbreak, there was one piece of good news to come out of all of that, that there was, indeed, one survivor -- not the news that everybody wanted to hear when there was such great hopes that all of the miners had survived.

And let's turn to Chris Huntington right now, who is outside the West Virginia University Hospital.

There -- there he is, Chris. It's -- it's like magic. I say your name and you pop up there.

Give us a quick update on Randy McCloy's condition right now.

CHRIS HUNTINGTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Paula.

Randy McCloy is still in critical condition. He is stabilized, and his condition is said to be improving. Overall, the doctors say that they are guardedly optimistic. At one point, the chief doctor, the head of trauma here at -- at the University Medical Center, said that -- speculated that perhaps Randy McCloy could be leaving here in 10 days -- an awful lot to happen to Randy between now and then for that to be -- for that to come to fruition.

He came in here, Paula, with a collapsed lung, with carbon monoxide poisoning, severely dehydrated, to the point that he was suffering some -- some kidney malfunctions. They are trying to rehydrate him now. That's their top priority. He's on a breathing ventilator, with a tube down his mouth. He can't speak to anyone. You mentioned earlier that he was able to respond to the doctors and to his wife with some facial expressions and squeezing hands.

That's very, very good news. The biggest concern that the doctors have right now, though, is, how long did he go without sufficient oxygen in that mine?

And this is how Dr. Roberts put it earlier.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ANNA MCCLOY, WIFE OF RANDAL MCCLOY: Just ask everybody to keep on praying.

QUESTION: Is that what is getting you through?

MCCLOY: Yes. Everybody is praying for him.

QUESTION: And your family support? Getting a lot of family?

MCCLOY: Yes. Yes, lots of family support, right.

QUESTION: And you're happy (OFF-MIKE) I mean, this is a good outcome for your family?

MCCLOY: So far, yes.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUNTINGTON: Apparently, not Dr. Roberts there.

But the crucial point, Paula, is that, while McCloy, who is only 26 years old -- he will be 27 in April -- is showing very good vital signs, strong heart, strong blood pressure, other signs improving, the crucial issue in the days to come will be, how does his brain function respond to the full oxygen he's getting now to -- to, hopefully, end up with a full recovery? -- Paula.

ZAHN: Well, there certainly are a lot of people rooting for him tonight.

Chris Huntington, thank you so much for that update.

And, right now, we want to little -- learn a little bit more about exactly what it was like inside the Sago Baptist Church when overwhelming joy turned to absolute despair.

A few minutes ago, we heard John Casto describe the scene at the church when the terrible news came down. He lost three friends in the accident. And he joins us now.

Thank you very much for joining us, and our heartfelt condolences.

So, John, a little bit earlier, we heard from Wilbur Ross, who is the CEO of the company that owns Sago Mine. And he expressed his profound grief about what has happened here.

And I -- I wanted to share with our audience something else that the president of the company had to say today, offering an apology. Mr. Hatfield said: "We sincerely regret the manner in which the events unfolded earlier this morning. The occurrences at Sago Mine over the past couple of days are truly a great tragedy. It is unfortunate, and we are saddened by the fact that the communication problems we experienced last night only add to the terrible tragedy."

Do you accept that apology?

CASTO: I would -- I would accept that apology, myself.

ZAHN: How hard is that apology for you to accept?

CASTO: Well, it's -- it's not really hard for me to accept, because I wasn't one of the family members, which, if I was, it might be harder, you know, to accept. But I got the love of the lord in my heart. And -- and it's not -- not for me -- not hard for me to accept.

ZAHN: John, you have spent some time with family members today. Describe the sense of anger and frustration they are feeling tonight.

CASTO: Well, tonight, I -- I don't really know, because I didn't really talk to no family members tonight.

But -- but, last night, they had anger. And -- and I don't believe that the world would blame them for that, for -- for what they was told about 11:00 last night. And then the news came back three, three-and-a-half-hours later that -- that it was just twisted around backwards from what it was told to them in the beginning.

And -- and it just felt like a -- a rock hitting you on the head and driving you into the ground, when -- when that news came about.

ZAHN: Finally, tonight, as we leave you, anything you want our audience to know about the three friends you lost and -- and their courage and their commitment to their jobs? CASTO: Well, I know that Marty Bennett, he -- he loved the mines. And I know that the -- if he would have walked out of the mines, that -- that he would have been right back in there, because he was dedicated to his job.

And -- and Fred Ware was the same way, and -- and Junior Hamner. They -- they was dedicated to their job. And they loved their job. And -- and, if they would have came out, they would have been right back in there when it reopened.

ZAHN: Well, we are so sorry about your community's loss. And we appreciate you honoring these men tonight.

Thank you very much for your time.

CASTO: Thank you. Bless you.

ZAHN: Thank you.

And, as we continue our coverage, we don't want to forget the most important question: What exactly caused the explosion at the Sago Mine in the first place? We are going to take a look into that next.

Also, we're going to turn our attention elsewhere tonight. Why is one tiny sign dividing a whole community in Minnesota?

The controversy over the tally of American deaths in Iraq, we will help you understand all that when we come back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: One of the big questions on all of our minds tonight is what exactly caused the explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia? Well the official investigation is just beginning. But Rusty Dornin has been working all day to piece together the final moments leading to the tragedy and she's just filed this report.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

RUSTY DORNIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They were in the first crew to go into the mine after the holidays. It was early Monday morning. Shortly after the first trolley transported the men deep down into the shaft, shown very roughly in this animation, there was an explosion.

Of the 13 men in the crew, one miner was killed. The other 12 were trapped nearly 260 feet underground, about two miles from the mine entrance.

BEN HATFIELD, CEO, INTERNATIONAL COAL GROUP: These miners tried to exit when they became aware of the explosion. The explosion clearly happened after they were already near the face, they felt the percussion and heard the noise perhaps. They started toward the outside. We believe they probably encountered heavy smoke. DORNIN: Company officials believe the men huddled together and did what skilled miners are supposed to do. They erected a primitive barricade.

(on camera): In an emergency like this, scattered throughout the mines is something called braddice cloth. It's plastic tarp that's wound into carpet wheels. The miners cut off pieces of that and they nail it to the timbers inside the mine or directly into the coal wall and sometimes it can create a clean air pocket.

(voice-over): Apparently it didn't work here. On the surface, rescue crews were dispatched. And a hole was drilled to try and provide fresh air to the trapped miners. Then 9,000 feet into the shaft, lethal levels of carbon monoxide are detected. That problem kept officials from sending rescue teams in for another 11 hours.

Yesterday evening the first of the miners was found dead. But the trolley was found empty. The first glimmer of hope that the others may have escaped. Hopes clearly dashed in the pre-dawn hours this morning.

What remains to be explained is what caused the initial explosion. And how did one man survive when so many others did not?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

DORNIN: One of the most incredible things, Paula, is that that lone survivor, Randal McCloy was wearing the same safety devices as the others who perished. He had on a helmet, he had on his head lamp, and he was carrying a personal breathing device they call an SESR, self-contained self-rescue. They each have about an hour's worth of oxygen but can filter about another seven hours worth.

Now McCloy was found along with the others who did die. The only thing people are saying now is the man was 26 going on 27. Perhaps his age had something to do with it because the other miners, the majority of them, were a lot older. Paula?

ZAHN: And I guess the other baffling tonight is -- given the thing tonight is given the other 12 deaths, the question is being raised, this man didn't seem to show any apparent signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. So what does that all mean? Questions that I'm hoping in the days to come we'll be able to answer. Rusty Dornin, thanks so much for the update, appreciate it.

Coming up next, it took some 40 hours to get to the miners. We're going to ask why it took that long and if it made a difference, if the other 12 miners might have been saved if that process had moved faster.

And then a little bit later on, in the aftermath of those raging wildfires in Texas and Oklahoma, how will a 99-year-old man start a new life after losing everything he had, including his home.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DR. LARRY ROBERTS, TREATING RANDAL MCCLOY: And he was able to interact a little bit with us, some appropriate movements, responded to his wife in an appropriate manner. His lung that we described earlier in the day that had collapsed is now almost completely reexpanded. In most respects, I think he's making progress as we would expect.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Back to our top story tonight. It took rescuers about 41 hours to find the exact spot where the victims of the Sago Mine explosion had apparently taken refuge after the initial explosion underground. Why so long? Could those men have been found alive if rescue crews had been able to move more quickly? We asked David Mattingly to look for some answers and some of the things he found may surprise you.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DAVID MATTINGLY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): When an explosion trapped 13 miners at the Sago Mine early Monday morning, there was no trained rescue team at the mine on the ready to respond. According to mine safety advocates, such teams used to be a common operating procedure in the industry, but they were eventually phased out at most mines because they were used too infrequently to justify the expense.

TIM BAKER, UNITED MINE WORKERS OF AMERICA: Well, you know, I think that anytime that you have a delay getting qualified and trained individuals to the site, it obviously backs you up. It creates a slowed pace at the beginning when maybe there could have been an attempt to go in the mine.

MATTINGLY: In this case, specially trained rescue teams were assembled from around West Virginia. They could not enter the Sago Mine until nearly 12 hours after the explosion, waiting for poisonous gases to be vented out.

HATFIELD: It is always possible that if we had gotten there sooner we could have saved more miners. And it was our determination and fervent effort from the day this happened to get there as quickly as we could.

MATTINGLY: The drilling of holes to locate the trapped miners didn't begin until about 21 hours after the explosion. The drilling equipment was not on site and had to be brought in as well.

Mines are not required to keep such equipment on hand. But even in this case, drilling had to wait until officials were able to make critical decisions on where to drill.

DAVITT MCATEER, MINE SAFETY EXPERT: What we need to do is look at ways to increase the efficiency and increase the speed with which we can get both teams and equipment to the sites. MATTINGLY: There is no way to say right now if the time it took to assemble teams and gather equipment actually slowed down the response. And while it may appear that there's no such thing as a quick and easy mine rescue, the tragedy at Sago Mine still shows that no rescue can be quick enough. David Mattingly, CNN, Atlanta.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: And we mentioned a little bit earlier the federal mine officials will investigate the exact cause of the explosion at the Sago Mine. The head of the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration tells the "Associated Press" that the investigation will also include how emergency information was relayed about the condition of the trapped miners, particularly in the wake of all the controversy about the families believing for almost three hours that in fact their loved ones were alive and ended up having died after all.

Still ahead, our coverage of the mine disaster continues tonight with the very latest on the condition of the only miner who survived.

But also ahead, we're going to see how one American city has suddenly become divided by a simple sign in a window. Check out this sign. It has sparked a huge debate in Duluth, Minnesota, over the count of American deaths in Iraq. Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: In Iraq today, at least 46 people were killed in bombings and other attacks by insurgents. None of the dead was American soldiers. Of course, that is good news for families back here in the states. But it will do nothing to end a growing debate in one Minnesota community that has suddenly become divided over one man's statement of the facts that nearly 2,200 Americans have died in Iraq. Here's Jason Carroll.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JASON CARROLL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Superior Street in Duluth, Minnesota. An average street in a small town where the national debate over the war in Iraq has become personal, all because of a sign.

It has pit neighbor --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: When I saw the sign, I was really angry.

CARROLL: Against neighbor.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have very little problem with where he put it.

CARROLL: Soldier --.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pretty tacky.

CARROLL: Against senator.

STATE SEN. STEVE KELLEY (D-MN): We're not going to back down just because it's difficult.

CARROLL: This is the man who started it all, Scott Cameron, a Vietnam veteran.

SCOTT CAMERON, VIETNAM VETERAN: When I put it here originally, I thought it would be taken with open arms.

CARROLL: Cameron is against the war in Iraq, but he says he created the sign to draw attention to veteran's rights. The past month, he's been keeping a tally of the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq and posting it in the office window where he volunteers. A campaign office for Minnesota State Senator Steve Kelley, who is running for governor.

The office, right next door to an army recruiting center.

CARROLL (on camera): What point are you really trying to make here? Are you trying to make a point?

CAMERON: Very much so. I'm trying to make debate.

CARROLL (voice over): Some of the soldiers next door say they don't want to debate when they are coping with the loss of their comrades in Iraq. Cameron's sign, to them, is an insensitive reminder.

SGT. GARY CAPAN, U.S. ARMY: It's like, you know if you work in an office and someone died, some kind of death, you know, the office space next to you puts up a sign saying how they died and you have to see it every day.

CARROLL: Sergeant. Gary Capan asked Cameron to move the sign. When Cameron refused, he thought that was the end of it. Then the local media picked up on the story. It wasn't long before Sergeant Capan started getting messages.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm pretty disturbed about what I've seen.

CARROLL: And letter.

CAPAN: Please don't inject your perverted misunderstanding into minds of young unexpecting recruits.

I just take them and I throw them in the garbage.

CARROLL: Some people in Duluth say that's exactly where it belongs. Chuck Horton coaches boxers at the Veterans Hall. He's a veteran of the first Gulf War.

CHUCK HORTON, DULUTH RESIDENT: Mine went right to anger. When I saw the sign and then I -- I think it's pretty transparent that it's a political ploy.

CARROLL: At a nearby cafe, Karen Sather couldn't disagree more.

KAREN SATHER, DULUTH RESIDENT: I really appreciate that it's next door because of the fact that it makes people more aware. It makes you more aware coming in here, being on national news.

CARROLL: But sergeant Capan says some people are missing his point.

CAPAN: We are hoping out of consideration for the guys in the office that are offended, that they just simply move it somewhere else to a better location.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I support the gentleman next door. I have total respect for our troops.

CARROLL (on camera): Their feeling is, you can best support us by taking the sign down. Is that going to happen or not?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, it's not.

CARROLL (voice over): And so, while there's a standoff, the debate continues. Jason Carroll, CNN, Duluth, Minnesota.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: The debate that doesn't look like it's going to be snuffed out anytime soon.

One more thing, the army recruiters tell us they don't think the sign next door has kept any potential recruits from visiting the offices there.

Still ahead tonight -- we're going to go back to West Virginia and the very latest on the coal mine tragedy and the one man who miraculously survived.

But next, we're going to turn our attention to the wildfires in Texas and Oklahoma that have destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres and have destroyed many people's homes.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Doesn't do any good to cry. As long as you can sleep. You just forget about it.

ZAHN: She is nearly 90. Her husband turns 100 tomorrow. How did they ever survive the Oklahoma wildfires, particularly when their house was engulfed in flames. What will they do now?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Tonight, we talk about the destructive grass fires in Texas and Oklahoma. They have eased somewhat. Firefighters, it seems, now have the upper hand. But there is still no rain in the forecast. That is not good news so the chances of more fires like these are high. Fires that have scorched hundreds of thousands of acres of grassland and have destroyed hundreds of homes. Here's Drew Griffin with a story of one man who lost everything, and as he turns 100-years-old tomorrow, faces starting a new life with his 87-year-old wife.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It was the narrowest of escapes. A raging grass fire New Year's Day was racing past Guthrie, Oklahoma. In its path, a home that withstood the prairie winds for 100 years, but it would not last one more day. And inside, two people who would have just seconds to get out, but only if they ran.

(on camera): Sit right on there. Yes, right there. Save room for your wife.

(voice-over): These are those two people: Wilma Clayton is 87, her husband Albert will turn 100 on Thursday. And if you ask them, it really wasn't that big a deal.

(on camera): Did it scare you?

WILMA CLAYTON, LOST HOME IN FIRES: Well, not right at the time. You don't know what's coming. You just see all that smoke coming.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Wilma and Albert weren't planning on leaving. She'd lived here 52 years and never ran before. That's when Dama Maker spotted them. She and her husband were out taking these pictures when she saw the couple standing on their porch, about to be engulfed in flame. Albert, she says, wasn't budging.

DAMA MAKER, RESCUED WILMA AND ALBERT: By the time I got them down even to the step way, to get down to the vehicle, they were still so reluctant. I spent five minutes probably trying to talk him into getting into the car.

GRIFFIN (on camera): He wanted to stay and fight?

MAKER: He wanted to stay and use the water hose to fight the fire.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Albert and Wilma came by Monday to salvage what they could. All they found worth saving is a purple heart earned by Wilma's husband in World War II. Not Albert, her first husband. You see, as frail and as old as they look, these two are practically newlyweds.

CLAYTON: We married nine years in April.

GRIFFIN (on camera): This burned-out house was actually home to two love affairs. The first was with Wilma and her first husband, who raised a family here. And eventually married two of their children to two of Albert's children. Most of their adult life, Albert and Wilma were in-laws. When their spouses died, they decided to start that second romance right here.

KEN SMITH, SON-IN-LAW: Just eight years ago. The family thought it was wonderful. We think it's just great that they have company and somebody they know. The two families has melded together real well.

GRIFFIN: And that love affair can survive this?

SMITH: Oh, of course it can. There's no doubt about it.

GRIFFIN (voice-over): Their son-in-law, Ken Smith, says the family will soon start the search for Albert and Wilma's new home. As for the couple who lost everything, they really didn't lose anything at all. The house was just that, a house. The love affairs that started here still burn bright in the young-at-heart lovers who called this home.

CLAYTON: Doesn't do any good to cry. If it's all over, I guess. As long as you can sleep. You just forget about it.

GRIFFIN: Drew Griffin, CNN, Guthrie, Oklahoma.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ZAHN: So important lessons that we can learn from the two of them. And there's this. The Clayton's children hope to get them into that new home as soon as possible and they tell us they've already received a number of offers of help from friends and family.

Please stay with us for an update on the condition of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon undergoing surgery after what is considered a major stroke. We're also going to go back to West Virginia for the very latest on the Sago Mine disaster and the condition tonight of the lone survivor. We'll be right back. Please stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ZAHN: Right now we're going to go straight back to Jerusalem where Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is gravely ill tonight after suffering a significant stroke. Let's turn to John Vause, who has the very latest now from there. John, what are you being told?

VAUSE: Paula, not a lot coming from hospital officials in the last hour or so. All we're getting is tidbits of information from -- information from the prime minister's aides, saying that the operation continues to progress well, that the prime minister is in a stable condition.

We make it that Ariel Sharon has been on the operating table for almost four hours now. The longer this operation goes, obviously the greater the concern of his recovery. He is 77-years-old. He is having this operation to drain the blood, a significant amount of blood away from his brain. Nothing coming from the hospital spokespeople, but we are hoping for something in the next hour or so, Paula.

ZAHN: I guess if there's one thing we've learned from you and Dr. Sanjay Gupta tonight, this is a dangerous procedure. Anything else you can tell us about what is entailed here? VAUSE: Well, we know that it's a very dangerous procedure. It's a very serious operation. And even the best case scenario, even if he pulls through this operation, as expected, as hoped for, the recovery period will be a very, very long time, Paula.

ZAHN: John Vause, appreciate the update.

Now we have time for just one more update for you. The latest on the only survivor of the Sago Mine disaster. Let's turn now to Chris Huntington, who joins us from Morgantown, West Virginia. So, Chris, what your hearing about the condition of Randy McCloy tonight?

HUNTINGTON: Well Paula, his family has been around here a lot. We've spoken to his brother, his stepdad, his mother. They are guardedly optimistic, as are the doctors, but Randy McCloy is still listed in critical condition, he's still in intensive care. He's stabilizing. His collapsed lung is improving. His carbon monoxide level is decreasing. Oxygen in the blood increasing. That's all good.

But there is great concern about his state of dehydration, which has caused a kidney problem and ultimately, the doctors want to make sure that he was not so starved of oxygen during that time in the mine that there will be problems for a full recovery.

So a lot will be learned in the next day. They hope to be able to ramp down the sedation that he's under now and possibly even awaken him tomorrow and that will tell us a lot. A news conference scheduled for noon tomorrow, Paula.

ZAHN: So Chris, do we have any better understanding tonight of how Randy was able to survive when the 12 other miners didn't?

HUNTINGTON: There's two things that we know. Randy is 26-years- old. He looks like he's going to make it to his 27th birthday, which is in April. He was very, very fit, a physically strong guy. His younger brother described Randy as a machine.

Hatfield, the head of the mining company, said that he believed McCloy was in the back of the area where the miners were barricaded and that may have provided some perhaps extra insulation if you will, from toxic fumes, from carbon monoxide, other problems that could have overwhelmed the other miners.

We'll have to just wait and see, especially when he is able to come to and tell us. That's when we'll really learn. But for now, it's touch and go. He's hanging on, he's stable. A lot of this depends on his own internal fortitude to pull through this.

ZAHN: And he certainly has the support of all Americans tonight as he fights this fight. Chris Huntington, thank you very much for that late report. And just a sweet little note to end on, we are told that he did -- was able to feel his wife squeeze his hand today for the first time since this accident. Thanks so much for joining us tonight. "LARRY KING LIVE" starts right now.

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