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Timeline Released Of Mine Disaster; Many News Organization Reported West Virginia Miners Were Alive; Condition Mine Accident Survivor; Ariel Sharon Rushed To Hospital After Stroke; Jose Padilla To Be Transferred To Criminal Custody To Face Charges; Israeli Politics Up In The Air

Aired January 04, 2006 - 16:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: To our viewers, you're now in THE SITUATION ROOM.
And we're going to go right back out to West Virginia and Ben Hatfield, the CEO of the coal mining group. He's still answering reporters' questions.


BEN HATFIELD, CEO, INTERNATIONAL COAL GROUP: ... entire period, and I can make no apologies for what happened before I got here. We're going to do the best to protect our people and that is my commitment and that's all I'm going to say about that issue.

QUESTION: At one point you or someone else said that a lot of these violations occurred in the abandoned mine, and it sounds as if that's where the ignition may have been placed, in an abandoned section. Any surprise and is that information accurate.

HATFIELD: I don't -- let's go with that question again, because I didn't understand it.

QUESTION: I had understood earlier that many of the violations had taken place in an abandoned section of the mine.

HATFIELD: I don't have any information that indicates that's correct, so I won't speculate on it. I don't know.

QUESTION: Can you talk about whether the fresh air base understood that 12 men or alive or not? Because by the time they got to the command, that's the message that was received. Does the fresh air base have that message, to your understanding, that 12 men were likely ...


HATFIELD: Again, we do not know precisely where the miscommunication occurred. It occurred somewhere between the person with the oxygen mask who was trying to survive -- revive Mr. McCloy and assist the other miners and the fresh air base, which was -- which is two links in the communication chain. I can't tell when you it went wrong. I don't know.

QUESTION: Where exactly is the fresh air base? It seems to be where they were in the same direction.

HATFIELD: I believe the distance from the fresh air base to the face was approximately ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: ... 1,800 feet.

HATFIELD: ... 1,800 to 2,000 feet roughly.

QUESTION: Can you tell how many people are in the fresh air base? Can you describe this to us at all? What is it, exactly, the fresh air base?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Normally there's the ...

HATFIELD: Charles, you want to step up? Charles Snavely will comment on that.

CHARLES SNAVELY, V.P. PLANNING AND ACQUISITIONS, INATIONAL COAL GROUP: To answer your question. First, the person at the fresh air base is the person that relays the information to the outside command center. There's normally one fresh air base person.

At that point, there's also a spare mine rescue team on site at that location. If there's a team of seven people that's working under apparatus, there are at least seven people on standby ...

QUESTION: So there might be eight people in there at that ...

SNAVELY: Right. There's always at least as many as are working under apparatus.

HATFIELD: All right. We're going to have to wrap up the Q&A. I'll take one more.

QUESTION: Can I request, again, that you get us a list -- a complete list of the names, dates of births and towns of residence for all of these miners? Because we have some -- people are operating on conflicting information.

HATFIELD: Again, we're not trying to withhold that information but we are sensitive to creating invasions of the families' privacy, so we want to be cautious about that. But if that information is in the public forum, we will help organize it and share it with you.


QUESTION: ... not only investigations but also to -- measure to ensure that an explosion in a mine like this never, ever happens again? Is that even realistic?

HATFIELD: Explosions of this nature in the coal industry have occurred from time to time, but there has been remarkable progress in recent years. The fact that the disastrous and tragic events that happened ...

BLITZER: And that was the -- basically the end of the news conference. Ben Hatfield of the International Coal Group -- that's the owner of the coal mine in West Virginia -- spending almost an hour answering reporters' questions, and delivering a lengthy statement. I think we've reconnected with Ben Hatfield. Let's listen as he wraps up this news conference.

SNAVELY: ... some of the vast press coverage that's had to do with this incident. They asked the next -- on one of the -- on CNN or on FOX News the other day and he said that, if you look at the most hazardous occupations in the United States, coal mining is not even in the top 10. And that says a lot for how safe this industry has become.

But you can't ask us to say that an accident like this won't ever, never happen again, because it just happened. And as safe as our industry is, that -- accidents do happen. And we spend our entire careers trying to keep these things from happening, and we certainly don't enjoy being right here at this point in time. You have to understand that.

QUESTION: Would you please give us your name and title and everything.

SNAVELY: Yes. My name is Charles Snavely, and I'm the vice president of ICG for planning and acquisitions.

QUESTION: Could you spell your name please?

SNAVELY: It's S as in Sam, N-A-V-E-L-Y.

QUESTION: Sir, inevitably the (INAUDIBLE) some lawsuits. And one person last night, a family member on cable news said he plans to sue this company until he can sue no longer. Does that worry you as a company, and if you care so much about the employees, how do you survive?

HATFIELD: We'd survive because we're a good business of successful managers and good people that have joined this team to move this company forward and we believe we're going to survive and prosper. International Coal Group is a strong and successful company. Sago Mine is but one of many operations that we operate very safely, very successfully, and we expect to continue doing that.

We don't have knowledge of whether lawsuits will or will not be filed. But that's not going to impact our behavior going forward. We're going to do our best to protect these -- to protect our people. We're going to do our best to eliminate these kinds of risks. We're going to do our best to minimize the pain and grief and economic disruption to the families of these 12 miners that we have so tragically lost.

That's all I want to say on that point.


HATFIELD: At this point, we will -- we really need to end this session and go back to the process of running the business. So, thank you. BLITZER: Ben Hatfield, the CEO of International Coal Group, now wrapping up a one-hour news conference, in effect, after delivering a lengthy prepared statement explaining exactly what happened overnight, jubilation followed by grief, the explanation from Ben Hatfield on what happened.

We have reporters standing by on the scene in West Virginia. Chris Huntington is there.

Let's begin with Brian Todd. Brian, set the stage for our viewers who may just be tuning in right now. What did we learn from Ben Hatfield just now?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we got a very emotional laying out of a timeline, essentially. They're trying to reconstruct what happened overnight, and how word got out first that these miners were alive, and where the communication broke down.

At times, Mr. Hatfield was very halting in his voice, very emotional. He is trying to explain this. And they essentially laid out this timeline.

Very briefly, at 11:45 p.m. last night, they got a report from somewhere in the mine that these miners -- that the 12 miners were alive.

At 12:30 a.m. they -- at one point, one of the rescue teams came out and when they were able to get fresh air and collect themselves, that's the first indication they got that these 12 miners may not be alive. At various times, they got reports of other things.

They did not find out until between 2:15 and 2:30 a.m. that the 12 miners were in fact deceased, and at that point they went to the families.

We asked them -- I pointedly asked him after he laid out the timeline, was there any order given at any point for members of these rescue teams not to tell anyone, to keep the word inside the circle of the rescue operation until they confirmed the condition of these bodies. Here's his response.


QUESTION: Why was there no order given to the people who were working on this rescue to not say anything and not release any word until it was certain of the condition of those miners?

HATFIELD: That order was given individually throughout this area, but you have to appreciate that this information from the mine rescue team comes across an audible speaker that can be easily heard throughout the mine office, and you have a desperate group of people that have been on their feet for anywhere from 30 to 40 hours, trying to save lives. They were looking desperately for good information.

These are friends, family, of the people that are trapped. There was desperation for good information. They wanted to share it. I don't think anyone had a clue how much damage was about to be created and we truly regret that. But certainly that direction had been given, but in the jubilation of the moment, the rules didn't hold.


TODD: So essentially what they were telling us throughout this was that there was a series of cell phone calls and other communication from members of the rescue teams to loved ones, to people they knew among family members, to people in the community.

They don't know how the word got out. They don't know how often these calls were made, how many calls were made. Essentially, Wolf, this is a line of communication that got away from them. And they were trying to explain the timeline. They claim that they never tried to mislead anybody, they never purposely got any of this out before it should have.

There are various claims that they were the ones who came down and initially told family members that their relatives were alive. They vehemently denied that. They said they never came and said that to anyone. They were always trying to number one, find out the condition of the miners, and get to them, and get them safely out; and, number two, clarify the information.


BLITZER: And it was a heartbreaking, rollercoaster of emotions. If you go back around 9:00 p.m. Eastern last night, Brian, as you well remember, there was word that one of those 13 trapped coal miners was found dead. No word on the fate of the 12 others.

Around midnight, as you report, the word came out erroneously that the 12 were alive. But then around 3:00 a.m. in the morning, word confirmed, and passed on to the families and all of us that they were, in fact, dead.

How were the families? And you've been speaking with a lot of the families who were there, the friends, the relatives, the associates. How are they coping? How are they dealing with this awful, awful chain of events?

TODD: It's really a combination of a lot of things, Wolf. It is disbelief probably first and foremost. You know, a little less than 24 hours after this all unfolded, many of them just can't believe it still. They can't believe that their loved ones are gone. They can't believe how they found out about it.

Earlier today I spoke with a cousin of one of the deceased miners. The miner's name is George Jr. Hamner. I spoke to his cousin, whose name is Earl Casto, Earl Casto, a longtime miner himself. He was very emotional in talking about this disaster, the loss of his cousin and how everyone found out.


TODD: If someone from the coal company were sitting where I'm sitting right now, what would your words be for them?

EARL CASTRO, COUSIN OF DEAD MINER: I would -- like them to get things straight before they put it out again. Anything they have to say, get it straight.

TODD: So you lost a friend and cousin, and ...

CASTRO: Since I've got to talking, that the ones that didn't make it out, that several of them that I knew, and it was a coal miner, it was a family -- it was a family.


TODD: The members of the mining company who we just heard from said they understand that reaction. They understand all the anger from the families. They are beginning their investigation into this incident this afternoon -- their post-incident investigation, this very afternoon, Wolf. And it's just something that seems to have gotten away from them overnight. They're doing their best to lay it out clearly, as to how it happened. And they kept saying over and over again that they regret how this unfolded are they are very sorry to the families and are working with the families, still in communication with them.

BLITZER: Stand by. We'll get back to you, Brian Todd reporting.

Randal McCloy is the sole survivor of this tragedy. He's hospitalized right now in Morgantown, West Virginia. He suffered a collapsed lung and severe dehydration, but earlier he was able to squeeze his wife's hand. Doctors are still assessing McCloy's condition.


DR. LARRY ROBERTS, W.VA. UNIVERSITY HOSPITALS: A CT scan of the brain is a limited study in this situation, but what we're, what we did find, is that there were no major injuries to the brain on the CT scan, which I think is very good news.


BLITZER: Let's go to the hospital. CNN's Chris Huntington is standing by in Morgantown. We learned some specifics, but still lots of unanswered questions on this sole, let's call him, a miraculous survivor.

CHRIS HUNTINGTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, probably the crucial question is just the degree to which Randal McCloy suffered oxygen deprivation. You heard Dr. Roberts talk about the results of a CAT scan, that can tell doctors whether or not McCloy suffered a head trauma and indeed the diagnosis is no. He was cleared of that.

The concern Roberts expressed in a press conference this afternoon is, as a result of the collapsed lung, the duration of his time down there, exposure to carbon monoxide, there are concerns about just how long he was starved of oxygen and the degree to which that may have an impact on his overall recovery.

There are several vital signs that are very strong in McCloy. He's 27 years old. Doctors said for sure youth played a part in his ability to survive this. His heart is strong, his pulse is strong, his blood pressure is good. He does have some kidney problems as a result of dehydration and immobilized for that period of time, but as you mentioned, he was able to respond to the doctor and his wife with facial expressions and squeezing hands earlier today. So the doctor is, as he put it, guardedly optimistic. McCloy is still listed, though in critical condition.

BLITZER: The carbon monoxide poisoning that had been feared, they did find traces of carbon monoxide -- I take it not at levels that were that dangerous? Is that right?

HUNTINGTON: Correct, Wolf. The doctor here, that's Dr. Larry Roberts, he's the head of trauma here, he's been treating him -- McCloy -- consistently since 3:00 a.m. And he has on two occasions in speaking to us said that the levels of carbon monoxide poisoning in McCloy's bloodstream were not severe to cause great alarm. In other words, it certainly was not the top of the list of concerns for Dr. Roberts, and indeed he said that McCloy had shown progress in reducing those levels of carbon monoxide and increasing levels of oxygen in his blood.

BLITZER: We spoke with his sister here in THE SITUATION ROOM on Monday. Our prayers go out to Randal McCloy and his entire family. We hope he makes a speedy recovery.

There's no doubt he'll have specific information. He's the sole survivor. He'll be able to share a lot what happened during those hours inside that tunnel after the explosion. Chris Huntington, thank you very much.

On behalf of the entire country, the president of the United States today offered a statement of consolation to the relatives of the dead miners.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Today our nation mourns those who lost their lives in the mining accident in West Virginia. We send our prayers and heartfelt condolences to the loved ones whose hearts are broken. We ask that the good Lord comfort them in their time of need.

I want to thank the governor of West Virginia for showing such compassion, and I want to thank those who risked their lives to save those miners for showing such courage. May God bless the good people of West Virginia.


BLITZER: Earlier reports of survivors led many media outlets to publish headlines celebrating 12 survivors. Corrections were quickly made. Those inaccurate reports were captured online. Our Internet reporter, Jacki Schechner has more on this part of the story.

JACKI SCHECHNER, CNN INTERNET REPORTER: Wolf, if you read the paper or checked the news this morning, you probably saw evidence of the flow of misinformation overnight. But there's a true archive of it online.

If you take a look at something like Google News, for example, you can see there a live headline comes in 13 hours ago. An hour later, the news corrected that only one, unfortunately, had survived.

If you go something like Newseum, which gives you headlines all across the country, front pages of newspapers, you can see what was printed in early editions and even later editions. You can see how excited people were, then there were some corrected editions. It really varies depending on where you take a look.

Even bloggers were doing what they do and updating throughout the night. They often leave up a post and instead of changing it, cross it out. You can see that here.

Again, if want to check out more online, you can go to our new broadband service, Pipeline, and check out all of the information about this miner story as it continues to progress.


BLITZER: We were, of course, on top of this story all night, including all of the erroneous information. We were broadcasting it, just as all the other broadcast and cable news organizations were at the same time. The print, the newspapers had bad headlines. We had some bad reporting as well as a result of the misinformation. The miscommunication, as they're calling it, that was conveyed. What a heart-wrenching story.

We're not going to go away from this tragedy for very long, but we are going to take a look at some other stories making news -- important news that we think you need to know about, including Jack Cafferty.

Let's go up to Jack Cafferty in New York. Jack, it's -- I don't know. I've been a reporter more than 30 years. You've been around for a long time as well. Do you remember a story like this, where bad information, heart-wrenching -- the people are alive and then three hours later they were told they're dead? I don't remember a story like this, but maybe something pops up in your mind.

JACK CAFFERTY, CNN ANCHOR: Not right off the top my head. The only thing I can remember is "Dewey Defeats Truman," the erroneous headline published as a result of the presidential election, when, in fact, Truman won. The emotional implications of that mistake pale in comparison to the emotional implications of this one.

We're actually going to do a question a little later in THE SITUATION ROOM -- I think it's in the 5:00 hour -- concerning the role of the news media in a story like this. We covered it extremely intensely. We were all over it from the very first moment that that explosion was known to have happened. We didn't leave it hardly at all, at least on THE SITUATION ROOM, as I recall. But in the end, we got it wrong. And the part that we got wrong was the part that did great emotional damage, I would guess, to some of those families.

It's not just us. It was every news organization in the country that was covering the story. But we're going to get to this and get some viewer thoughts on the media's role in a story like this later.

Meantime, one of my very favorite stories is the blood that's beginning to run in the streets of the nation's capital -- waiting for the other shoe to drop, as it were.

Lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty today to conspiracy and wire fraud. It is his second guilty plea in two days -- probably more to come. He's going to help prosecutors investigating corruption in Congress. The Justice Department says they'll use Abramoff's emails and other records to focus on as many as 20 members of Congress and their aides. I can't wait.

As one expert told "USA Today" - quote -- "the fear level on Capitol Hill on a scale of 100 is 105. Anybody touched by Abramoff is having difficulty sleeping these days." Gee what a shame.

Get a load of who took money from Abramoff. This is just a partial list. House Speaker Dennis Hastert took $70,000. Former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, who is currently under criminal indictment in Texas, took $57,000. His successor, Roy Blunt, also had his hand out to Abramoff. Even the president's re-election campaign took money from this creep.

Until something is done about the ability of lobbyists and special interests groups to buy influence, until realistic limits are put on campaign financing and until term limits force these clowns out of office before they can become corrupt, nothing is likely to change.

Here's the question -- what should happen to politician who took money from the lobbyist, Jack Abramoff? Can you spell orange jumpsuit. You can email us at or go to and we'll read some of your responses later.

Those guys are emptying their pockets, Wolf, faster than when you go through one of those airport security checkpoints and have to dump all your stuff in the little coin basket.

BLITZER: I suspect there's more of that coming down the road. Jack, thanks very much.

And coming up here in THE SITUATION ROOM, there's breaking news out of Israel right now. The prime minister, Ariel Sharon, once again going to the hospital right now. We're going to go to Jerusalem for a live report, that's coming up.

Also, much more on the scandal that's been rocking Washington -- how the U.S. Congress and the White House are reacting to the Jack Abramoff plea agreement.

And President Bush heads over to the Pentagon and speaks out about the war in Iraq. We'll tell what you he's saying.

Much more on our top story as well -- we're not going to leave it for very long -- the aftermath of the mine explosion. We'll talk to the man who is leading the drilling operation.

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: We're going to go back to West Virginia in a few moments but there's an important story developing now in Jerusalem. The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is in a Jerusalem hospital once again. Aides say he was rushed in for treatment just a little while ago after reporting that he was not feeling well. Sharon suffered a mild stroke last month, and was scheduled to undergo heart surgery tomorrow.

Let's go to Jerusalem. CNN's John Vause is standing by with the latest. John?

JOHN VAUSE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, this is what we know. Earlier tonight, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, was spending the night on his ranch in the southern part of Israel. His personal physician was there. It was then when Sharon started feeling unwell. His doctor thought it was bad enough for Sharon to be taken by ambulance from the Negev to Hadassah Hospital here in Jerusalem.

He was not flown as some earlier media reports have suggested, but he was driven by ambulance -- an indication that this was not, is not as serious as first thought. Taken to Hadassah Hospital, the same hospital that he was rushed to two and a half weeks ago on a Sunday night when he suffered a mild stroke.

It's still not known just what is affecting the prime minister. There are some unconfirmed reports on Israeli media that he may have suffered another stroke, that he may have been complaining of chest pains. At this stage, we do not know. We do know that he arrived at Hadassah Hospital within the last 25 minutes. He was taken by stretcher to the trauma ward, he was conscious, he was talking with those around him.

Ariel Sharon is due to undergo a fairly minor heart procedure in the next 12 hours or so. When he was taken to hospital last time, December 18, doctors discovered a small hole in the prime minister's heart. Tomorrow he was due to have that fixed.

He was expected to go under a general anesthesia for three hours or so. He'd already relinquished control, decided to relinquish control to the vice prime minister, Ehud Olmert. At this stage, though, it's still not known whether he will go ahead with that heart procedure tomorrow, Wolf.

BLITZER: One quick follow-up, John before I let you go. December 18 he suffers a mild stroke. They find the small hole in his heart. They say they got to fix it. Why did they decide to wait until, what, January 5, tomorrow, to do that procedure? Why didn't they just do it right away?

VAUSE: I think this has been very much a decision made by Ariel Sharon about when and how he wants this procedure to take place. He wanted to get out of the hospital as soon as possible last time. He wanted to prove to the Israeli public that he was out and about. It also took the doctors a while to discover or to decide, rather, on the best form of treatment, how this should be dealt with -- whether or not surgery was the best option, whether or not it was worth repairing. So there was a lot of decisions to be made. The prime minister finally decided, in consultation with their doctors -- with his doctors, that they would wait until tomorrow for this to go ahead.

It's been about two and a half weeks. The prime minister also wanted the publicity from his stroke to settle down before going back into hospital for what everybody within his office has been describing as a routine, minor procedure. They've been playing it down for the last couple of weeks.


BLITZER: All right. I know news is going to be coming out in the next several hours. We'll be checking back with you, John Vause on the scene for us in Jerusalem.

And there's a developing story right here in Washington. Let's go to our Justice correspondent Kelli Arena. She has details. Kelli, what's going on?

KELLI ARENA, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, Jose Padilla, who as you know has been held for nearly four years as an enemy combatant in a brig in South Carolina, has been ordered by the Supreme Court to be transferred over to criminal custody from military custody to face the charges against him, in a criminal indictment that was filed in November.

Now, Wolf, you may remember there is some legal back and forth here. Padilla's lawyers had argued that the Supreme Court should not rule on this issue yet and instead wait until it ruled on the larger issue of whether Padilla's detention was constitutional. But the Supreme Court did go ahead and say, well a ruling now. The government had asked for an emergency ruling. It got that emergency ruling.

We haven't heard a response from the government just yet, Wolf, but we have heard from Padilla's lawyers, who say that they're glad he'll finally be able to defend himself before a jury of his peers, like every other American. So once again, Wolf, U.S. citizen and enemy combatant Jose Padilla finally being transferred over to criminal custody where he can face charges against him.

BLITZER: So just to explain to our viewers, this is a win for the Bush Justice Department, which wanted him transferred at this point as opposed to his own attorneys, who said they wanted to deal with other issues in the meantime?

ARENA: That's right. And there were some critics, Wolf, who alleged that the government was trying to not have the Supreme Court deal with that constitutional issue, by all of a sudden filing charges against him. And so there was a lot of speculation that they were trying to just go around the Supreme Court, and that whole larger issue of detaining U.S. citizens as enemy combatants here on U.S. soil. But the government, at least in this phase, got its way.

BLITZER: Kelli Arena, thanks very much for that report. Kelli Arena's our Justice correspondent.

Up next, we'll get back to our top story, the mine explosion in West Virginia. I'll speak live with the man who headed the drilling rescue operation.

Plus, we'll have the latest on the story that's rocking Washington. How are members of the U.S. Congress and officials over at the White House reacting to the plea agreement by the fallen lobbyist Jack Abramoff?

Stay with us. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.


BLITZER: The heartbreak happened in the darkest hours before dawn. A joyful celebration gave way to agony, anger, and chaos. First, there was word that all but one man survived the Sago Mine disaster. Then, only hours later, only one man out of the 13 had survived. Finally just in the past hour, after a day-long delay, the mine operators offered an explanation and an apology for keeping family members in the dark for so long.


HATFIELD: What would I have done differently? I would have personally gone to the church when we got the conflicting information, if I had to do it over again, and say, something may be wrong here. But in hindsight, I don't know what the right answer is.


BLITZER: The sole survivor is 27-year-old Randal McCloy. He's in stable condition at a hospital in Morgantown, West Virginia. McCloy suffered a collapsed lung and is experiencing kidney problems right now. He'd only been working in the mining industry for three years.

We spoke with his sister on Monday. We'll have part of that interview about Randal McCloy. That's coming up in the next hour here in THE SITUATION ROOM.

Mike Ross took part in the rescue effort. He oversaw drilling as crews tried to reach the miners. Mike Ross is joining us now from Tallmansville in West Virginia. Mike, thanks very much for joining us. What did the drilling accomplish, if anything?

MIKE ROSS, MEMBER OF MINE RESCUE CREW: I think we accomplished a lot, Wolf. After we got the rig assembled and got our site prepared, we were able to drill down and pretty much hit the target that their engineers had asked us to do so, which was some 260 feet beneath the surface.

And after we drilled into the mine shaft where the coal had been mined out, we lowered the drill pipe down to the bottom. First, we shut down all the engines, everything. We just listened for about ten minutes. We didn't hear any sounds whatsoever coming out of the mine shaft.

Then we took a large hammer and beat on the side of the drill pipe to try to some signal from below the surface. We did not receive any signals. So then we pulled the drill pipe out of the hole, lay it down. And then the company had a camera there that you lower down into the mine shaft by the use of a cable.

So we lowered the camera down in there, and the camera takes a beautiful picture. They tape every bit of it. You're able to sit down and look at it just like you'd watch your TV set. And we could see nothing in there, no human beings, not activity whatsoever. Saw pieces of equipment still setting there that looked to be in good shape, and no signs of any explosion or anything like that.

BLITZER: Now that we know where the 13 miners were trapped, do we know that that hole was in that vicinity where those miners were?

ROSS: It's my understanding -- and I haven't talked with any company officials today about that, but just from what I've heard on the street -- that the miners may have been 300 to 400 feet away from where we drilled the first hole. Something like that -- up in the area.

We were pretty much toward the end of the mine shaft, where they were loading the last loading coal. We were the furthest distance away from the entrance to the mines.

BLITZER: And were you getting air samples from that hole that you had drilled?

ROSS: The federal inspectors were there. They were taking the samples.

BLITZER: And you were getting the samples. All right. You've been in the coal mining industry for a long time. The heart-wrenching events that occurred last night, a lot of us went to sleep thinking those 12 miners were alive. We were smiling. We were happy. Only to wake up this morning to learn they were dead. Talk a little bit about your reaction to what happened.

ROSS: Well, I was certainly disappointed myself because I had went to sleep early yesterday evening, having been up all the night before and out with the rigs. And federal Judge Maxwell called me at 20 minutes to 1:00, and told me about the good news. And I felt pretty good about that because I thought that myself, along with all the volunteers we had working on the rigs and everything, that, you know, we had some part playing a role in that. And we were just glad to do it.

And then I watched you fellows on the news this morning and I said, something's wrong. This can't be right. But apparently it was.

BLITZER: Because there was one survivor, Randal McCloy, 27 years old, and he's in a hospital right now, as we've been reporting, in stable condition. I can't help but think, if those rescue crews were going through that two-mile tunnel, had reached that area just an hour or two or three or four, a little bit earlier, maybe they would have found a few more people, a few more miners alive? I'm sure that's going through a lot of people's minds right now. What do you think?

ROSS: Well, I'm sure it is also. It'll be interesting to -- and hope the young miner gets well and able to talk about it some and remember some of the incidents. But the rescue people are certainly trained in what they were doing underground, and I think that they always try to do their best.

And there were several teams there. In fact, they had a team in from Illinois they brought in, but even the local rescue teams that had worked in these coal mining incidents up in the northern part of the state where it's certainly more common than down here.

But I'm sure they've all done their best, and it's very unfortunate, and we all are saddened by it. And we were working on the surface up there, primarily. It was our job to assemble the rigs and get in there as quickly as possible. And we had three drilling rigs available. We had the large rig, capable of drilling a large hole with 36-inch hole to take men out through the surface, through the big hole, if need be, and we were prepared to do that.

BLITZER: Well, thanks for your good work, Mike Ross. And let's hope it's not necessary down the road. I suspect, though, it will be. Appreciate you joining us.

ROSS: Thank you. My pleasure. Certainly a sad day.

BLITZER: Another huge story we're following right now out of Jerusalem. We have just been told that the prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, has suffered what doctors are now describing as a significant stroke. Not a mild stroke, as he suffered in December, but a significant stroke.

Let's listen to what the doctors said only a few moments ago at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem.

DR. MOR YOSEF, HADASSAH HOSPITAL DIRECTOR GENERAL (through translator): ... a significant stroke. For the purpose of the diagnosis (INAUDIBLE) given a respirator. He's now in the (INAUDIBLE) for a more precise diagnosis of the nature and extent of the event.

BLITZER: That was a translation of Doctor Mor Yosef, who said that Prime Minister Sharon has suffered a significant stroke after Sharon was rushed to the Hadassah Medical Center from his ranch in the Negev Desert. He's under general anesthetic right now. He's receiving, according to the Doctor Mor Yosef, breathing assistance, as his condition is assessed.

The cabinet secretary, the Israeli cabinet secretary, Yisrael Maimon, said Sharon's authorities as prime minister have been temporarily transferred to the vice-prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, a long political associate of the prime minister, the former mayor of Jerusalem.

The Israeli prime minister now being treated at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem, suffering a significant stroke. We're going to get some more specific information on what this means, what this means for the prime minister, what this means for Israel right now. Clearly, this is a very, very delicate moment politically for Israel as new elections are scheduled for the end of March.

The Israeli prime minister suffered what was described as a mild stroke back in December, December 18. At that time, they discovered a small hole in his heart which was about to be treated with relatively minor surgery, as it was described, tomorrow, at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem. But today, he was at his ranch in the Negev Desert, when clearly he began to feel ill. And he was rushed by ambulance, not by helicopter, to the hospital in Jerusalem.

John Vause is our correspondent in Jerusalem. He's joining us once again. John, very significant development -- a significant stroke being described by his doctor, Dr. Shlomo Mor Yosef, in Jerusalem.

VAUSE: Yes, we're hearing from -- that's the director of Hadassah Hospital, basically saying now that this is a very serious situation, that the prime minister has suffered a significant stroke, that he's under anesthesia. He is also under resuscitation as well, and that powers have been transferred from Ariel Sharon to his deputy, Ehud Olmert, the vice-prime minister.

This is very much a serious situation here, Wolf. No one expected this. When he was taken to the hospital, we were being told by the prime minister's aides within the prime minister's office that this was simply a matter of the prime minister not feeling way.

There was even a suggestion that is may have been a case of pre- night jitters before he underwent a relatively minor heart procedure tomorrow. But now, this is serious. This is the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, according to the director of the Hadassah Hospital, has now suffered a significant stroke. He is under anesthesia. And also, according to the hospital, he's under resuscitation as well.


BLITZER: Standby for a moment, because I want to get our senior medical correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, into this conversation. John, be with us, but I'll get right back to you.

Sanjay, this is what we know, and I want your medical expertise brought into the situation. He's under general anesthetic. He's receiving breathing assistance. The doctor, the director of the Hadassah Medical Center, Dr. Shlomo Mor Yosef, says he has suffered a significant stroke.

Channel 2, one of the Israeli television stations, says he's suffering from paralysis now in his lower body, and that he was taken into the hospital on a stretcher. Clearly, none of this is good. He's five foot, seven. He weighs close to 300 pounds. Clearly, 77-year-old man, this is not a very, very good situation?

DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: No, not at all, Wolf. And you know, his history is becoming a little bit clearer now over the last month or so. As you mentioned earlier, he did have a stroke back on December 18, and then put on a blood thinner, Wolf.

That is significant. A blood thinner, obviously, to thin the blood, but also to make it more likely that you could develop bleeding in areas of the body, including the brain. And that is something doctors, neurologists, I'm sure his cardiologist, all worry about, whenever they start a medication like this. Could it cause a bleed in the brain later on? That would be causing stroke-like symptoms as well.

When they say a significant stroke, on the breathing machine, requiring the sedation and the anesthesia, and with paralysis, this probably means that we're talking about what sounds like at least at this point a significant and perhaps irreversible as well stroke.

These are some of the early signs of a stroke like that. Given his age and his body habitus (ph), as you were just mentioning as well, Wolf, these are all risk factors that doctors, I'm sure, are very concerned about right now.

BLITZER: The Israeli newspapers in the past couple weeks were reporting some of his medical specifics. His blood pressure was pretty good, given the fact he is so overweight -- they call him the Bulldozer in Israel. And his cholesterol was below 200, which is obviously pretty good for a man in that kind of condition as well.

The question I asked John Vause earlier, Sanjay, is that on December 18, he suffers a mild stroke. They find a little hole in his heart, and they wait until tomorrow, January 5, to do that procedure. I was always suspicious that maybe politics was playing a role in that delay. Would they normally go ahead and wait for two-and-a-half weeks to do that after someone suffers a minor stroke, or would they just do the procedure right away?

GUPTA: They could wait for something I think, Wolf. In all honesty, this sounds like this was a particular condition in the heart which is relatively uncommon, but does happen in a certain percentage of people and could have -- what happened is you have a little hole in the heart and blood clots form around that, and then can actually flick off from the heart and go to various areas, such as the brain.

And that may have been the cause of his stroke back on December 18. That's why the blood thinner was started, and that's why a procedure is scheduled to fix that hole in the heart. It's not uncommon for that to be done electively within a short time, usually within about a month oh so. And it sounds like he was on schedule for that. I don't know, obviously, about the politics of it, but this wouldn't be uncommon if this was taking place here in the United States. BLITZER: All right, Sanjay, hold on a minute. I want to go back to our correspondent in Jerusalem, John Vause. He's collecting more information on what's going on. John, what are you hearing?

VAUSE: Wolf, right now we're being told that Ariel Sharon is being wheeled into the operating room at Hadassah Hospital -- this coming from the director general of Hadassah Hospital. And there is some concern that the prime minister may have fluid on the brain. Sanjay can probably tell us more what that means, but right now, we know he is on a stretcher. He is being taken to the operating room, possibly with fluid on the brain, Wolf.

BLITZER: Let's go to Sanjay Gupta, our senior medical correspondent. Sanjay, what does that mean?

GUPTA: To me, fluid may be a little bit of a euphemism for actually talking about blood. Just talking about the fact that being on the blood thinners, having the sort of symptoms, Wolf, that you and John Vause are describing with the paralysis and the significance of the breathing machine and the sedation.

Only blood would probably would probably cause something that quickly to change. Fluid on the brain, you know, can also refer to a condition known as hydrocephalus, which is just normal fluid on the brain. This doesn't sound like that at all. This sounds like blood, and this fluid -- that's probably what it is, Wolf.

BLITZER: The Associated Press now, Sanjay, is reporting, and John, that hospital officials are telling the AP that Sharon suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and is being treated for that. Explain what that means, Sanjay?

GUPTA: That's exactly what we're talking about, Wolf. A cerebral hemorrhage is a bleed on the brain. That's exactly what I think most people would suspect, given the fact he's had a quick change, you know, rather acute or sudden onset of the paralysis, and what sounds like maybe even a semiconscious state requiring the breathing machine.

That almost always, Wolf, would be caused by bleeding on the brain. Also given the fact that he's been on these blood thinners now since at least December 18, that sort of heightened my suspicion as well for exactly this course that we're hearing about now.

BLITZER: The hole that was supposedly going to be repaired tomorrow, Sanjay, according to his doctor, Dr. Hiam Lotem, the hole measured one to two millimeters. It was described as a minor birth defect, found in 15 to 25 percent of people.

Doctors said the blood clot that caused the minor stroke that he suffered on December 18 was lodged in the hole, restricting the flow of blood to Sharon's brain. And the prime minister was taking a blood thinning medication, Sanjay, called clexon (ph), twice a day until the heart procedure. What is all that information mean to you?

GUPTA: The condition for people who care about the specific term is known at patent foramen ovale. And that's basically -- you know, Wolf, you have four chambers in the heart. Normally, these four chambers only communicate with each other through little valves.

Sometimes, there's little holes in the heart that actually make these chambers connect in other ways. And clots form around that little hole, and sometimes those clots can flick off from the heart and literally go to the brain. And that is a well-known condition and can cause a stroke, like the symptoms that Sharon had back on December 18.

The typical treatment is to go ahead and start blood thinning medications, and then at some time, usually within a month or so, to fix that hole in the heart, which sounds like they were planning on doing. But in the interim, you know, you hear now that he's having this bleeding, sounds like, on the brain probably as a result of these blood-thinning medications, which is a known risk of starting these medications in the first place, Wolf.

BLITZER: Well, with hindsight, Sanjay -- and I know we're all looking back now since December 18 -- was it wise to wait until tomorrow to do this procedure?

GUPTA: I think that, you know, any cardiologist and, you know, people who do this procedure regularly would probably say that it's OK. It's not something that needs to be done emergently, but it's something that shouldn't be put off too long, either. Certainly, December 18 until now is less than a month. I think that that, at least to my eye and ear, sounds pretty reasonable. I don't know that I would say that it should have been done earlier or make any judgment on that.

BLITZER: All right, Sanjay, stand by for a moment. I want to get back to you, as we get more information on the condition of Ariel Sharon.

But I want to bring back John Vause in Jerusalem. John, Ehud Olmert becomes acting prime minister, I take it, for the time being, until Sharon recovers.

We wish him a speedy recovery. But it looks right now that he's not going to have that speedy recovery, at least, as he undergoes these kinds ever procedures to deal with what the Associated Press is calling a cerebral hemorrhage?

VAUSE: It may surprise you to learn, Wolf, that after the prime minister suffered his minor stroke just over two weeks ago, December 18, suddenly it was discovered here that there was no real plan in place to transfer power from the prime minister to an elected deputy in case of the incapacitation or the sudden death of the prime minister.

Now, what happened two weeks ago Olmert (ph) and some other members of the cabinet got together and they decided that Ariel Sharon was still able to function, that he was communicating, that he was conscious, that he was never, in the term of medical doctors, he was never medically confused. So he was still in control of the country, still able to make decisions. Therefore, back then, December 18, he never relinquished power. What they've done in the meantime is they've formed a committee, and they've decided to put into place some kind of process for just this eventuality, in case the prime minister is incapacitated because of a stroke, because of some kind of medical ailment, or because he suddenly dies in office, should that happen.

So now, there is this process in place where power will be transferred, that the decision will be made by a committee that the prime minister is incapacitated and, therefore, the powers of his office are transferred to his deputy, in this case Ehud Olmert.

Now, what happens from this point on is should the prime minister be incapacitated for any period of time, Ehud Olmert can act as deputy -- or act as the acting prime minister, rather -- for the next 100 days. And after that, it's still an open-ended question precisely what happens in this country, whether or not Ehud Olmert goes to the president to form a new government, whether he goes to elections? It's pretty much a moot point, because this country will be going to elections anyway on March 28.

But in the bigger picture, it's still not known precisely what would happen. But there is now a procedure in place brought on by the prime minister's stroke last month, December 18 so that the prime minister who was under this general anesthesia now, unable to make decisions, unable to be in control of country, that his powers, that the authority of his office, had been transferred to Ehud Olmert.


BLITZER: Stand by for a moment, John.

Sanjay, a quick -- Sanjay. We lost Sanjay. But Dr. Shlomo Mor Yosef, the director at the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem saying that Sharon has suffered a significant stroke. Also saying that the Israeli prime minister has had massive bleeding and was being transferred to an operating theater.

Sanjay, if you're still there, under the best of circumstances, the best of circumstances, knowing what we know right now, can he recover from this in order to serve as prime minister once again?

GUPTA: If I was his doctor right now, I'd be very concerned. Obviously, I haven't seen his CAT scan. It's hard to diagnosis these things from afar. But a 77-year-old man who's on a blood thin who's had what sounds like a significant hemorrhage in the brain, that's always very concerning.

I'm just listening to you, Wolf, saying that they're probably going to take him to the operating room to try and remove some of that blood, probably from his brain. That's hard to do because he's on the blood thinners now. So he's going to -- that makes bleeding complications a little bit more concerning as well. So there's a lot of different things at play here, Wolf, medically, but all concerning, given the overall picture.

BLITZER: Dr. Mor Yosef says he's not only suffered a significant stroke, he's under anesthetic, receiving breathing assistance. He's had massive bleeding in the brain, was being transferred, as I noted, to an operating theater or the operating room right now. Channel 2, one of the Israeli television stations, says he suffering from paralysis in his lower body. None of this information, clearly, good. Stand by, Sanjay. John Vause, stand by.

Our senior political analyst Bill Schneider, who's covered Israel, spent a lot of time there, watched the political scene unfold. Talk a little bit, Bill, about the politics. This comes at such a delicate moment, the aftermath of Israel's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, as Sharon leaves his Likud party, starts a new party, the Kadima party. Elections scheduled for the end of March. Right now, a lot of that is going to be up in the air?

WILLIAM SCHNEIDER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: It certainly is. Ariel Sharon, the prime minister, defines the center now in Israeli politics. In fact, he represents the broad consensus of Israeli opinion on the issues of security and the future of Israel. And he has been widely expected to win those elections.

Are there any alternatives? Well, Shimon Peres supports the Kadima party. I don't think he joined it. He's a very former prime minister, but he's not nearly as popular or as widely trusted as Ariel Sharon, and he's never actually elected prime minister. Ehud Olmert, also a known figure, former mayor of Jerusalem, but untested on the national stage.

Are there alternatives in other parties? The new leader of the Likud party, which is Sharon's former party on the right, is Bibi Netanyahu, another former prime minister. Netanyahu opposed the Gaza pullout and is a critic of the Road Map, something that Sharon supports, President Bush's policy for a two-state solution in the Middle East. Bibi Netanyahu, Benjamin Netanyahu, does not support that process.

The Labor party also has a new leader, Amir Peretz. He's totally unknown and untested. And he has no real diplomatic experience. So none of the alternatives to Sharon look very promising.

BLITZER: Right now, the Bush administration, the U.S. government, they've pinned a lot of their hopes on advancing the peace process with the Palestinians on Ariel Sharon?

SCHNEIDER: That's right. They have indeed. Sharon's views have certainly evolved over the years. He's become an endorser of the Road Map, someone who has endorsed the two-state solution, as has President Bush. A lot of the details have to be worked out. But a lot of the Bush administration's hope for the peace process rests with Ariel Sharon, who, of course, is suffering today from this very serious medical condition.

BLITZER: John Vause -- let's bring him back in Jerusalem. What happens if Ariel Sharon, John, can't run again for a political office, for re-election? He's getting himself hooked up right now. John, are you there? Can you hear me?

VAUSE: Yes, Wolf. Yes.

BLITZER: Good. I was saying, what happens if Sharon can't run again for re-election? What happens to his Kadima party? What happens to the scheduled elections for the end of March?

VAUSE: Well, this is still very much open-ended, what happens to the elections? Can they be delayed? Will the president make that decision to delay the elections? Does he, in fact, have the power to delay the elections?

In all likelihood, the elections will go ahead as planned. We saw that after the assassination of the former prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995. The elections were, in fact, brought forward a few months, Shimon Peres losing those elections in 1996.

So the elections scheduled to be held March 28 will, in all likelihood, go ahead. So the question then is, what happens to the Kadima party? In all likelihood, if Ariel Sharon is not the leader of Kadima in principle, at least, Ehud Olmert, the number two guy on the ticket, will most likely become the leader. He'll have to win the endorsement of his party.

He, then, leads Kadima to the next election. But in many ways, Kadima without Ariel Sharon is a party without a platform, a party without an ideology, a party without its main, central character. And without Ariel Sharon leading Kadima, holding it together, holding together the politic politicians from the right, holding together the politicians from the left as well, then, really, Kadima is in all sorts of trouble. And without that forceful personality of Ariel Sharon, Kadima could very well fall apart.


BLITZER: And so then, presumably, Ehud Olmert, would he go back to his base, which is his traditional party, the Likud, which now is being led by Benjamin Netanyahu, one of his political rivals?

VAUSE: All of this is, of course, speculation about what may or may not happen. But certainly, if you look at the divisions between those who left Likud and went to the Kadima party and those who remained behind in Likud, there is a deep division. There is almost hatred between these two parties.

The people who have stayed behind in Likud feel betrayed by those who have left. The people in Kadima who've left Likud feel betrayed and feel as if they've left behind a nasty, bitter political situation in Likud. So whether or not the people who remain in Kadima would go back to Likud, it seems extremely unlikely at this stage, Wolf.

BLITZER: And stand by for a moment, John Vause. Bill Schneider is here as well.

The ramifications, Bill Schneider, for U.S. policy in the Middle East right now, with everything as far as the Israeli political process being put on hold, at least for the time being, could be significant. SCHNEIDER: It could be. And remember, it's not just the Israeli political process, but even the Palestinian process. They're supposed to be holding an election this month, and it's not clear that election will proceed.

The Israeli authorities have been unwilling to allow Arab Palestinian residents of parts of Jerusalem to participate in the campaign. So there's a question, a shadow over the Palestinian election. There are many, many questions over the future of the peace process, which of course in many ways will determine what happens in the entire Middle East.

BLITZER: Bill Schneider, stand by for a moment. John Vause, stand by. Our senior medical correspondent, Sanjay Gupta, stand by as well.