WE DEEPLY REGRET’
TALLMANSVILLE — International Coal Group President Ben Hatfield said Wednesday that he “allowed the jubilation to go on longer than it should have” after friends and families of 13 trapped coal miners were erroneously told Tuesday night that 12 of them were found alive.
Three hours elapsed before the “command center” at the mine rescue told the people, who were dancing and hugging and ringing church bells in elation, that 12 of the miners were actually dead.
The command center was told 40 minutes after the first erroneous message that the miners were probably dead, Hatfield said. The command center told State Police to tell clergy members at the church where the friends and family were sheltering that the good news was premature, and to pass that along to the revelers.
“Based on our information, at least some of the clergy received that message,” Hatfield said, but it obviously wasn’t passed around. “That, we deeply regret.
“In hindsight, all I could have done differently is to go to the church and personally say, ‘We have conflicting information. Please, let’s just hold where we are.’ ”
Instead, in the early morning hours Wednesday, what was the miracle heard ‘round the world became a tragedy for the loved ones of 12 miners in Upshur County.
For two days, the 13 men were trapped beneath the earth in the Sago Mine. Family members and friends took refuge in Sago Baptist Church as they waited for news from rescue teams. Earlier Tuesday evening, they had heard that one miner was found dead. Officials were hopeful for the other 12 miners, but not optimistic. Family members knew the carbon monoxide levels in the mine were not good.
At 11:50 p.m. they suddenly erupted out of the church hollering “Twelve alive!” and “Thank God they’re alive!”
As church bells tolled, some of the more swift ran a few hundred yards downhill to the road leading to the mine, hoping to catch a glimpse of their emerging loved ones with the bittersweet knowledge that one man wouldn’t be coming up alive.
People clamored for cell phones and hugged strangers as cable news channels went live with the reports.
Gov. Joe Manchin and his entourage sped toward the mouth of the mine, operated by International Coal Group.
Manchin said rescuers told him the miners were found. “They told us they have 12 alive,’’ Manchin reported. “We have some people that are going to need some medical attention.’’
As newspapers across the country, including the Gazette, redid front pages to report the jubilant news, the celebration continued for nearly three hours as a dozen ambulances arrived on scene with other emergency workers.
Family members who had been standoffish with the media elatedly shared their experiences upon hearing the news as reporters and TV crews were allowed first access to the church.
At some point, state troopers told the media that they had to leave the church and get behind the barricade several hundred yards away. Otherwise, they would be escorted out.
At 1:13 a.m., what would be the only ambulance to leave the mine site with a survivor drove away toward Buckhannon to applause from a few people who had been in the church.
In the hour after the joyous announcement, Tom Hunter, Manchin’s press secretary, told the media he could not give official confirmation that the dozen miners had indeed been found safe.
Around 1 a.m., he said that each miner was getting a medical assessment at the mine entrance as they came out amid rumors that the miners said they wanted to visit with their loved ones before getting further medical treatment.
There was very little movement between the road leading to the mine and the church for 90 minutes.
Then at 2:35 a.m., Manchin and mine officials quickly drove to the church in a three-vehicle convoy.
State Police again kept the media behind the barricade as Hunter announced that Manchin would soon speak at the company’s briefing room a few miles uphill.
It quickly became apparent that family and friends had just gotten the bombshell news that only one man survived, not the 12 they had been celebrating.
Robert Rupp, a professor at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, got to the church about 12:30 a.m. after the celebration had been going on for about 40 minutes.
People inside were singing hymns as word spread that the miners would come to the church. But some people didn’t believe those reports, he said.
About 2 a.m., Rupp said, he talked to a state official he did not want to name who told him: “Something went horribly wrong.”
The news didn’t come as a complete shock to him and several other people inside the church who knew ahead of time what might be announced.
“The story should have been about the tragedy at the mine, instead it became about the cruelty of the notice,” he said.
Hatfield, Manchin, six other officials and seven troopers came through a side door.
Manchin, Rupp said, looked very worried and very upset.
Hatfield apologized to everyone for not keeping them updated on the changing reports then read a prepared statement that was hard to hear.
It was hard to hear because people near Hatfield started yelling. Then he spoke up for the whole church to hear:
There was only one survivor.
A collective moan came up from the crowd, Rupp said. One man called Hatfield a liar. Another said he was a hypocrite.
Manchin said a few words before the officials left.
Overall, the people inside the church were grieving, but a few became very angry.
At 2:42 the first people left the church — some hysterical, some solemnly sobbing. Manchin took off seven minutes later.
Word spread among the media of the cruel news that had just been delivered.
In those first minutes, many people screamed obscenities and made gestures toward photographers as they sped away down the narrow road away.
“I believe this company flat-out lied,” said Harley Ables, whose brother-in-law Fred Ware was one of those who died. He said it was not just the 200 or so people in the church who wanted to know, but also friends and family around the country who couldn’t be there.
“They can’t reconcile this,” said Tim Newton, who is stepfather to miner Terry Helms’ son, Nick. “How are they going to turn around and say: ‘Whoops. Sorry, we made a mistake’?”
About two dozen State Police troopers had asked the media to leave the area around the church and go to Manchin’s news conference up the road. Troopers told reporters and cameramen that families had asked for all of the media to leave so they could leave in dignity. Troopers also advised it would be good for the personal safety of the media.
At Manchin’s news conference about 3:45 a.m., he expressed gratitude for the mine rescue workers who successfully pulled out one miner, and remorse for the families of the 12 miners who were now confirmed dead.
“We’re very blessed to have one miracle,” he said. “We were hoping for 12.”
Regarding the erroneous reports of a dozen survivors, Manchin blamed the situation on miscommunication — something Hatfield echoed Wednesday afternoon.
Manchin said when he got to the mine rescue command center, everyone there was ecstatic at the happy news for the first 20 minutes before they started getting conflicting reports of 12 dead that later turned out true.
Manchin didn’t know whether someone sent a wrong message or a correct message got misconstrued and forwarded to someone inside the church, giving everyone a false hope after more than 36 hours of waiting.
Manchin’s spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said nobody on his staff ever confirmed that the 12 were alive even though Manchin — like everyone else at the scene — looked overwhelmed with joy as he left the church.
Later, Manchin described the evening as “an emotional rollercoaster” and said that state, mine and rescue officials would help the grieving families in the coming days as they prepare for 12 funerals.
At Hatfield’s news conference Wednesday, he said the misinformation “only added to the terrible tragedy.”
When those in the command center circulated what they thought was good news, “I don’t think anyone had a clue how much damage was about to be created,” he said.
The bodies of all 12 victims were removed from the mine by 10:26 a.m. Wednesday and turned over to the medical examiner for identification and autopsies.
Staff writers Tara Tuckwiller and Scott Finn contributed to this report.
To contact staff writer Dave Gustafson, use e-mail or call 348-5113.