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Breaking News: Tragedy At Sago Mine

Aired January 04, 2006 - 06:31   ET


SOLEDAD O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: A tragic ending to a West Virginia mine, leading to anger and confusion and finger pointing. Just about four hours ago, we first learned that, in fact, there is only one survivor of the Sago Mine accident. We've got reporters on the scene with the very latest update.
Good morning. Welcome, everybody, to a split edition of AMERICAN MORNING coming to you from New York City and Sago, West Virginia, which is where Miles O'Brien is reporting from this morning.

Hey, Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Soledad.

All of this unfolded for the victims obviously in real time and also on television. For those of you who were up all night watching it, it was a compelling story, a story which initially seemed too good to be true. Perhaps, in fact, it was.

The initial indication that 12 of those miners had survived. One had been killed in the immediate aftermath of that explosion. It led to a wild scene of euphoria here, which later was dashed.

CNN's Randi Kaye was here every step of the way.


RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There is still so much confusion about exactly what went wrong here at the Sago Baptist Church. Late Tuesday night, the announcement is made, the great news that there are 12 surviving trapped miners. They have survived. Their families are euphoric. The church bells are ringing. There is much celebration. Families here talking about what they're going to say to their uncles, their sons, their son-in-laws, their brother when they come out of the mine and they greet them.

And then just hours later the terrible news of a massive miscommunication between the rescues crews that are 13,000 feet deep into the mine and the rest of the people back here at the church, the family members desperately waiting and hoping for good news. Word that there is actually only one surviving miner in that group.

The mining company officials here at the church telling the family members of the miscommunication. Family members in utter chaos break out. They begin to charge the mining company officials inside the church. They start calling them hypocrites and liars. It is an absolute terrible scene. And now they wait for answers, more answers, more waiting, to find out exactly how it happened.

Randi Kaye, CNN, Upshur County, West Virginia.


M. O'BRIEN: Many of those answers are still forthcoming. And certainly that anger very palpable here in this small community. This is not even a town. It's just a settlement of 418 people. Obviously a very tight-knit group.

And inside that church many friends and family together trying to shore each other up, at one point celebrating, still consoling the family of what they thought was the one person who died at the time. Then everything, of course, turning around.

And what they're left with, as I spoke -- as I learned when I spoke with three of them just a little while ago, what they're left with is terrible anger.


ANNA CASTO, COUSIN OF MINER: Finally they come, Mr. Hatfield, the CEO of the mines. He'd say he didn't know nothing. Finally he come up, and he said they was all living. He even give us the directions of how he was bringing them in. He was going to take the emergency car, go up and get them. He was going to bring them to the church, to the families, not only my family, but all families.

And he was supposed to come back within an hour. He come back three hours later with news that they're gone, that there is no survivors.

We want to know why and how people can get by with this. This is supposed to be a free country, people. And I want to know -- he says he has got letters from the president and everything. So why can't we as a family? Now, I'm not asking for nothing for me. I just want to let immediate family to get some kind of satisfaction, some kind of answers.

M. O'BRIEN: And I think we all can understand an honest miscommunication.

CASTO: That was not -- no.


M. O'BRIEN: Is this...

CASTO: No, no.


CASTO: No, no, no, no!

M. O'BRIEN: What do you think?

CASTO: No, there was no -- it was -- there was -- no.


M. O'BRIEN: Tell us what happened then.

CASTO: He strictly told us they was alive. Three hours later he come back and said there wasn't -- there was no -- no, no. There was no. There's too many...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There was no miscommunication.

CASTO: There was too many families up there that had heard everything. No, there was no.

OMA WITHERS, RELATIVE OF MINER: No, no, we was told that there was one gentleman had passed away. Well, we mourned with that family. You know? Our hearts went out to them. But yet the rest of us were told, hey, your men are coming -- you know, they're coming home. And then, what, two, three hours later, then, boom, oh, well, there's no survivors.

That is not a miscommunication. I don't feel like that is at all. I mean, just don't lie. Don't tell us one thing and then -- you know, hey, we're up there celebrating. But yet we're -- you know, we're mourning with this other family.


M. O'BRIEN: Ben Hatfield, who is the chief executive officer of the company which owns the Sago Mine, number one, said as he tried to explain what happened that the company never made what he called a formal announcement. But talking to the family members, that is something that, well, would be completely lost on them. They didn't see it as anything less than an announcement that their loved ones were alive -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, certainly there are many questions that need to be answered about this announcement.

Where exactly did this miscommunication come from? Did someone just have wrong information? Was something overheard incorrectly? And even if the company never made a formal announcement, why take three hours to correct something that they clearly knew within about 20 minutes or so was in some way inaccurate? How could they watch people celebrating and euphoric thinking that their loved ones were alive and probably alive and allow them to celebrate when they knew that they couldn't confirm that information, and also allow news reports to continue with details about the survival when they knew that information was incorrect?

What happened to these men in the 40 hours plus that they were underground? What did they do? Clearly, we know now, efforts to save themselves. But what exactly transpired way under the ground there? And why did Randall McCloy, why was he the only one to survive? Is it because he was the youngest, maybe the healthiest? Or we are told from the hospital that his breathing apparatus was on and still running when he was recovered from the mine.

So, how close a call was it for the other miners who did not survive? Was it minutes? Was it hours?

There are many, many questions. And, of course, Miles, maybe the big question that started all of this: What happened? What caused the explosion in the first place that would result in the deaths of 12 miners way underground?

A terrible tragedy to have to report and certainly to have to report 180 degrees different than what we thought just about four hours ago.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, and I think, Soledad, you hit an important thing, the prospect that they had survived the explosion, had barricaded themselves in as it now appears, that the sole survivor, Randy McCloy, even was able to get through it all and still had some -- potentially had some air left, according to some reports, although they're supposedly only equipped with about an hour-and-a-half worth of air.

All of that raises a whole other dimension of questions. I spoke to one of the fire chiefs here a little while ago, and he said one of the problems they have here is there are only a few trained teams, fully equipped teams that are able to go into these mines and take care of these rescues. The average firefighter is not equipped or trained to do this.

And there is a lag time in getting these teams deployed and to the portals of these mines. He says he would prefer it if they trained more of these people, distributed this equipment more widely so there would be a little less of a lag time.

You have to ask the question there, if there had been a quicker response, if they could have gotten that team in place sooner, could it have made a difference in this case? And when you consider the fact that Randall McCloy (ph) is still with us, that's a question that may haunt a lot of these families for some time to come.

S. O'BRIEN: It really is. And a lot to haunt these families, frankly, Miles.

Miles, we'll get back to you in just one moment.

Let's check in with Kelly. Obviously lots of other stories making news today, and Kelly has got that.

Hey, Kelly.


And we are beginning with more violence to tell you all about in Iraq. Some information just in to CNN. There has been another explosion in Iraq. It happened just a short time ago northeast of Baquba. Officials say the apparent target was a funeral procession. At least 30 people were killed in the suicide bombing. Dozens of others are believed to be wounded.

President Bush is heading to the Pentagon this morning for an update on the war on terror. And we're expecting to hear remarks from the president after his briefing with top military commanders. His focus on Tuesday was the Patriot Act. Lawmakers temporarily extended that anti-terror legislation just until next month. But the president says he will spend the next month trying to convince people that Congress should permanently extend the bill.

More landslides in Indonesia. A week of heavy rains and flash flooding has wiped away bridges and flooded roads. At least 85 people have been killed. Rescue crews and soldiers are trying to evacuate people in villages cut off by the flooding. Hundreds of people are still missing.

And back here in the United States, firefighters in the Southwest are watching for new wildfires. More than half-a-million acres have been scorched and at least five people killed. Strong winds carrying smoke across the Oklahoma City area. Dozens of homes have been destroyed there over the past week. Dry, windy conditions were said to be fueling those flames.

What's it going to look like on this Wednesday, especially for the folks in the Southwest? Bonnie Schneider at the CNN center with some answers.


S. O'BRIEN: Coming up this morning, much more on this stunning news coming to us out of West Virginia that 12 of those 13 trapped miners are dead. Family members outraged having heard just hours earlier that they had survived. What exactly happened in that mine? We're going to talk to a mine safety expert just ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. Stay with us.


M. O'BRIEN: The Sago Mine number one about a half-a-mile from where I am stand is a mine that is well known by federal and state regulators. All of the mines are scrupulously combed over for violations. And this mine has had a recent upsurge in the number of violations.

Now, it's difficult to fully assess how serious those violations are. But to put this all into the context of the accident we have been following, CNN's Tom Foreman kind of looked into things to give us a sense of how safe this mine is.


TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The number of safety violations at the Sago Mine has risen rapidly in the past two years. And last year, inspectors called 96 of them serious and substantial. Add 11 roof collapses in the last six months, and a former top federal official who monitored mine safety, Davitt McAteer, sees red flags.

DAVITT MCATEER, MINE SAFETY EXPERT: That's a signal to you that it says you'd better do something and you need to intervene here and change what's happening at the workplace, because in mining the small problems mount up quickly and catastrophically.

FOREMAN: The Sago Mine accident comes on the heels of seismic shifts in the mining business. In the 1990s with coal prices low, many small mines cut back production, went bankrupt or shut down. And that opened the door for billionaire investor Wilbur Ross.

Ross made headlines and a fortune buying up failing steel companies. Now, his International Coal Group is doing the same in mining. His relatively new company now owns a substantial portion of the nation's coal reserves.

ISG took over Sago only six weeks ago. And officials say the company has corrected many safety problems. But its executives don't want to discuss that at the moment.

BEN HATFIELD, CEO, INTERNATIONAL COAL GROUP, INC.: We have no interest in getting into the finger pointing or who is responsible for what or what went wrong a year ago.

FOREMAN (on camera): Federal safety records indicate the coal business has grown safer in recent years with injuries and fatalities dropping even as production rises, but it remains dangerous work.

(voice over): The association that represents many mining companies, although not International Coal, says the Sago violations, while serious, did not necessarily signal an immediate threat.

BRUCE WATZMAN, NATIONAL MINING ASSOCIATION: When I looked at it generally, I didn't see anything that caught my attention as being so out of the ordinary.

FOREMAN (on camera): And in making a quick review of these violations, you don't see anything there that leaps out at you as endangering miners' lives.

WATZMAN: No, I did not.

FOREMAN: So what are these citations about?

WATZMAN: They could be paperwork errors. They could be reporting errors. A lot of violations, but many of which were not significant to really impact miners' safety.

FOREMAN (voice over): So what to make of the International Coal Group?

MCATEER: They're a company that's entered the mining business and has accumulated lots of resources. And we have yet to see the proof of the pudding in terms of safety and health.

FOREMAN: Now accident investigators will be making their own judgment on that and deciding who, if anyone, should be held responsible.

Tom Foreman, CNN, Washington.


M. O'BRIEN: We do know this: Twelve of the 13 miners survived that initial explosion now more than 48 hours ago. How did they survive? And how did one of them make it to this day and is clinging to life this morning?

In just a little while we'll speak to an expert on mining safety and get his thoughts on all of this. Stay with us.


S. O'BRIEN: We continue to follow this developing story out of Sago, West Virginia. Miners trapped in a mine there. It turns out that they are not alive. There were reports around midnight that they had survived. But, in fact, 12 of the 13 miners have perished at the scene. A thirteenth miner is now hospitalized in critical condition.

We continue to follow that story. Let's get right to the headlines, though. Kelly Wallace has those.

Hey, Kelly.

WALLACE: Hello, Soledad.

And we're beginning again in Iraq, where a funeral procession has come under fire northeast of Baquba. Word of a bombing just coming in to us here at CNN a short time ago. Officials say a suicide bomber wearing an explosive vest detonated, killing at least 30 people. Dozens of others are wounded.

Iraq is expected to top the agenda as President Bush heads to the Pentagon this morning. The president will be getting a briefing from top commanders and then will make a statement on the war on terror. CNN, of course, will bring you the president's comments in the 11:00 hour as soon as we have them.

A former top Washington lobbyist is due in a Florida courtroom today after a plea deal that could shake things up in Congress. Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and tax evasion charges on Tuesday. He has agreed to cooperate with federal prosecutors in an investigation that could involve some top lawmakers and Capitol Hill aides. Abramoff already faced bank fraud charges in connection with his 2000 purchase of a Florida gambling boat operation. Lawmakers say he'll plead guilty to charges related to that later today.

And parts of the Northeast got hit with a winter snowstorm, the first of the New Year. In Massachusetts, more than a foot of snow fell in some areas. The storm caused some scattered power outages. But some good news, especially for the little ones. They got a lot -- a lot of kids got an extra day of holiday vacation as a result of that.

So, some happy little folks there in Massachusetts -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, you see the miserable people who are doing the shoveling and the kids behind them who are absolutely thrilled.

WALLACE: Exactly.

S. O'BRIEN: All right, Kelly, thanks.

Coal mining -- because we've been talking about it with this news coming to us from Sago, West Virginia -- is obviously a very dangerous business. A major source of energy, though, in the U.S. Andy Serwer is "Minding Your Business" on that issue.

Good morning.

ANDY SERWER, "FORTUNE" MAGAZINE: Good morning, Soledad.

As we have so sadly been reminded over the past several hours, it is a deadly business oftentimes with thousands of fatalities each year and dozens of deaths. I should say thousands of injuries and dozens of deaths every year.

We continue to mine coal, though, and the reasons are obvious, because it makes sense economically. Over 50 percent of the nation's electricity is generated from burning coal. Twenty percent comes from nuclear energy, 18 percent from natural gas.

We haven't built any new nukes since Three Mile Island in 1979 since that accident. Natural gas had been on the increase, but prices have been rising so much. And also it's not as efficient as burning coal or nuclear power plants.

We have a tremendous amount of coal in the United States. In fact, 20 percent of the world's resources of coal are in the United States.

You can see there are three primary regions here. The Appalachian region, which some people have called America's OPEC, has 35 percent of the coal. And then the interior region, Illinois and Iowa, has 13 percent. And then the western region, actually Wyoming, is the number one coal-producing state with 30 percent of the nation's resources.

And it remains to be seen how much more development will go on. Probably, Soledad, it will continue to do so, because gas prices are up, natural gas prices are up, and it's a resource that we can't afford to do without at this point.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes. Certainly, though, when you see the numbers of those, as you point out, injured and the thousands of those killed...

SERWER: Thousands and dozens every year. S. O'BRIEN: ... consistently every year...


S. O'BRIEN: ... it is a tough business. Andy, thanks, for the update.


S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning much more on the stunning turn of events in West Virginia. Twelve of those 13 miners are dead. Earlier word was that they had survived. And it was based apparently on a miscommunication. As you can imagine, friends and family members outraged. How could the information be so wrong? We're going to talk to the governor of West Virginia coming up. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. We're back in a moment.


S. O'BRIEN: As we approach the top of the hour, let's check in on the forecast with Bonnie Schneider. She's at the CNN center.


BONNIE SCHNEIDER, CNN METEOROLOGIST: That's a look at your forecast. Stay tuned. The next hour of AMERICAN MORNING starts right now.

M. O'BRIEN: Thanks very much, Bonnie. I'm Miles O'Brien live in Upshur County, West Virginia.