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January 15, 2006
‘Chaos’ marred critical early hours after blast

By Ken Ward Jr.
Staff writer

BUCKHANNON — International Coal Group President Ben Hatfield offered a blunt description of the early hours after an explosion ripped through his company’s Sago Mine.

“What was going on in that two hours was sheer chaos and confusion,” Hatfield said during a media briefing last week.

The mine superintendent and three other managers rushed back underground to try to rescue 13 workers who had not made it out.

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A specialized rescue crew was not called until 8:04 a.m. — more than 90 minutes after the 6:31 a.m. explosion.

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration was not notified of the emergency until 8:30 a.m.

Such bedlam has become all too common in major mining emergencies.

To some extent, it is understandable, officials say. Some workers might be scared, confused or even hurt. Others show incredible bravery, ignoring their own safety to try to save co-workers.

But in this disaster, as in others before it, the disorder probably made matters worse. Experts say such anarchy causes crucial delays in an organized mine rescue, and goes against exactly what is needed to protect workers when fires and explosions occur.

“Confusion and disorder after the initial discovery of an emergency is normal,” says one mine rescue report from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “The first few minutes after discovery are crucial and the key is to minimize the chaos.”

Until various government investigations are completed, the exact causes of the rescue breakdowns at the Sago Mine will not be known. But in the wake of West Virginia’s worst coal-mining tragedy in nearly 40 years, it is clear that the industry has not completely learned important lessons from a long history of emergency response mistakes.

Just two years ago, MSHA tried to beef up its requirements for emergency evacuations of coal mines.

Under a new rule, MSHA required coal operators to designate one person for each shift to take charge during fires, explosions and floods.

MSHA also required this person to “conduct an immediate mine evacuation when there is a mine emergency that presents an imminent threat to miners.” The MSHA rule also broadened the requirements for various sorts of employee emergency training.

MSHA officials wrote the new rules in response to the September 2001 explosions that killed 13 workers at the Jim Walters No. 5 Mine outside Tuscaloosa, Ala. After the initial explosion, 12 Jim Walters miners raced deep into the mine to try to rescue an injured co-worker. They were killed by a second blast.

MSHA also acted because of a series of four explosions in July 2000 at the Willow Creek Mine in Utah. At Willow Creek, the initial explosion and subsequent fire occurred about seven minutes before the later explosions, which killed two miners.

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