TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. In a stunning and heartbreaking reversal, mining officials told family members early Wednesday that 11 of the 12 trapped coal miners initially thought to have survived a mine explosion had died.
The devastating news came more than three hours after Gov. Joe Manchin said he had been told 12 of the miners survived the disaster. Rescue crews found the first victim earlier Tuesday evening.
“About the confusion, I can’t tell you of anything more heart-wrenching than I’ve ever gone through in my life. Nothing,” Manchin said.
The sole survivor of the disaster, identified by mining officials as 27-year-old Randal McCloy, was hospitalized in critical condition early Wednesday, a doctor said. When he arrived, he was unconscious but moaning, the hospital said.
“It’s sorrow beyond belief,” International Coal Group Chief Executive Officer Ben Hatfield said during a news conference.
Hatfield told the families gathered at the Sago Baptist Church that “there had been a lack of communication, that what we were told was wrong and that only one survived,” said John Groves, whose brother Jerry Groves was one of the trapped miners.
At that point, chaos broke out in the church and a fight started.
“Everyone in the church is just devastated,” Red Cross volunteer Tamila Swiger told CNN, saying people were breaking down and suffering panic attacks.
The false news about survivors spread quickly after people overheard cell phone calls, Hatfield said. In reality, rescuers had only confirmed finding 12 miners and were checking their vital signs. But what began to leak out to anxious family members was that 12 miners had been discovered alive.
“That information spread like wildfire, because it had come from the command center,” he said.
Family members streamed from the church where they had kept vigil, shouting “Praise the Lord!” Bells at the church rang out as family members ran out of the church, yelling “They’re alive!”
The explosion was the state’s deadliest mining accident since November 1968, when 78 men including the uncle of Gov. Joe Manchin died in an explosion at Consol’s Farmington No. 9 mine in Marion County, an hour’s drive north of here. Nineteen bodies remain entombed in the mountain. It was that disaster that prompted Congress to pass the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.
The 12 miners were found together behind a barrier they had constructed to block carbon monoxide gas. They were found near where the company had drilled an air hole early Tuesday in an attempt to contact the men.
The hole also was used to check air quality in the mine, which revealed high concentrations of carbon monoxide. The odorless, colorless gas can be lethal at high doses. At lower levels, it can cause headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea, fatigue and brain damage.
“I think we can confirm with certainty the miners survived for a certain amount of time, but we have no way of knowing exactly how long,” Hatfield said.
Associated Press writers Vicki Smith, Allen G. Breed and Mark Williams in Tallmansville contributed to this report.