FIRST came the explosion. Then came the wait to help 13 men trapped in the Sago Mine in Upshur County last week. The wait was made longer because of the crumbling state of the nationís mine rescue system.
The explosion was around 6:30 a.m. At 1:30 p.m., the first rescue team was still waiting outside the mine. Safety rules prevent one team from entering until a back-up team is standing by. The second team did not arrive until after 5:30 p.m. The miners had already been trapped for more than 11 hours.
In an emergency, every minute counts. Many factors contributed to the nationís inability to respond to this emergency properly, as reporter Ken Ward Jr. revealed Sunday:
s As the number of miners has shrunk, so has the number of trained rescuers. Positions at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration go unfilled. The number of MSHA-approved safety teams dropped by 10 percent between 2000 and 2002. Every coal mine in the country is supposed to have at least two teams, either on site or on contract nearby. As of 2004, there was only one team for every four underground coal mines in the country.
s Companies are required to maintain rescue teams. They can do it themselves or contract another company to do it, but those off-site teams are not subject to regular MSHA inspection to make sure they are trained, equipped and prepared to respond to an emergency.
s MSHA has changed the way it maintains its own teams. Instead of keeping a complete team stationed at various regional offices, those professionals are spread throughout the nation to be called together in case of an emergency.
s As recently as three years ago, an MSHA study group started during the Clinton administration drafted a plan to improve MSHAís mine rescue program. In December 2002, the Bush administration ended that effort, despite warnings from industry and labor officials.
Conditions in West Virginia appear to be better than in other states. West Virginia has 35 rescue teams on record, or 4.34 mines per team. Kentucky has 12 mines for every team, and Virginia has 11.
So why couldnít teams assemble at Sago sooner? Perhaps the holiday interfered. Perhaps the teams are not as well-formed as they appear on paper.
The exact time of death of each miner is not known. But certainly some were alive as late as 10 hours into the ordeal, when one made a note of it. Still another, Randall McCloy, managed to cling to life long enough to be brought out more than 40 hours after the explosion. These conditions suggest that, had rescuers been able to reach them sooner, more of them might have survived.
Had the rescue teams arrived sooner, they might have been able to go in and get them.
It is possible that all the teams could have been in place and ready to go, and still couldnít enter the mine because of hazardous conditions. But what if they had entered quickly? Those 11 hours could have made a big difference.