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US: Doomed Miners Tried to Escape; Mine's Safety Record Examined

by Gardiner HarrisThe New York Times
January 11th, 2006

The 13 men trapped after an explosion inside the Sago Mine last week tried to break their way out in a rail car before retreating to create a protective curtain and wait for help, the family of the sole survivor told The Associated Press.

Ben Hatfield, the chief executive of International Coal Group, the mine's owner, told the family that the miners had apparently tried to force their way out but were prevented from doing so by debris, Rick McGee, the brother-in-law of the survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., told The A.P. yesterday.

"They found footprints," Mr. McGee told The A.P., adding that the men "tried to go back out."

"This ain't hearsay," he said. "This came from Hatfield's mouth."

Efforts to reach representatives of International Coal Group late yesterday were unsuccessful.

A spokeswoman for Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, Lara Ramsburg, told The A.P. yesterday that the state believed that the men had tried to escape.

Also yesterday, federal mine officials made public records of inspections done at the Sago Mine last year that concluded that mine supervisors had repeatedly failed to uncover dangerous conditions before starting a day's production.

Company officials have said that a required preshift inspection done shortly before the explosion on Jan. 2 found no dangerous levels of methane, an explosive gas that is often the cause of mine disasters. But the newly public records indicate that these inspections were often inadequate.

The records also show that the mine had by far the worst safety record last year of any mine its size in West Virginia. Federal inspectors cited the mine 202 times last year, a number that included 16 violations so blatant that they were deemed "unwarrantable failures." None of the six other mines in West Virginia with a similar number of employees were cited for that kind of violation.

Tony Oppegard, a former top official with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and a former prosecutor of mine-safety violations in Kentucky, said in an interview that the documents demonstrated that Sago officials should have been criminally prosecuted before the explosion.

Federal mine regulations allow the mine agency to issue a "pattern of violations" notice when a mine operation fails to correct unsafe conditions, Mr. Oppegard said. When such a notice is issued, parts of a mine are closed if an inspector uncovers a further safety violation, he said.

"This is precisely the sort of situation that Congress envisioned when they put the 'patterns' provision into the statute," Mr. Oppegard said. "You can't just let them violate the law month after month."

In a news briefing on Monday, Robert Friend, the acting deputy assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, said that for the agency to issue such a notice, the "pattern of violations takes a history, more than just a few weeks or a few months." A pattern extending two years could merit such a citation, Mr. Friend said.

Mr. Oppegard called Mr. Friend's answer "ridiculous."

"The law doesn't say it has to go on for years," he said.

Company officials have insisted for more than a week that they were not responsible for the injuries and citations at Sago over the past year because International Coal Group acquired the mine only in November. The Charleston Gazette reported yesterday, however, that Wilbur L. Ross Jr., who formed International Coal, had controlled the company that owns Sago since at least 2001.

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