Sago Mine Disaster

From Global Energy Monitor

The Sago Mine Disaster was a coal mine explosion on January 2, 2006, in the International Coal Group's Sago Mine in Sago, West Virginia. The blast and ensuing aftermath trapped 13 coal miners for nearly two days. Only one miner, Randal McCloy, survived. It was the worst mining disaster in the United States since the Jim Walter Resources Mine Disaster in Alabama on September 23, 2001 killed 13 people, and the worst disaster in West Virginia since the 1968 Farmington incident that killed 78 people.[1] [2]

The disaster received extensive news coverage in the media worldwide.[3] After mining officials released incorrect information, many media outlets, including the New York Times reported that 12 survivors had been found alive, when, in fact, only one of the thirteen trapped miners survived. [4]

Federal investigators pointed to a lightning strike as the "most likely" ignition source for the blast, which occurred inside a sealed area of the Sago Mine. The U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration concluded that stronger seals, proper methane monitoring and the removal of a pump cable from the sealed area where the explosion occurred could have prevented the disaster.[5]

In September 2010, administrative law judge Jerold Feldman at the Federal Mine Safety and Health Commission slashed the fines for 13 violations against International Coal Group related to the disaster, from just under $134,000 to $71,800. He also vacated four MSHA violations and removed the "unwarrantable failure" designation from five others. The ruling reflected a settlement between MSHA and ICG subsidiary Wolf Run Mining Co.[6]


Description and early theories of cause

The explosion occurred at approximately 6:30 a.m. at the beginning of the first shift after the mine reopened after the New Year's Day holiday weekend. An examination conducted at 5:50 am by a mine fire boss had cleared the mine for use. Two carts of miners were making their way into the mine to begin work.[7].

Early reports noted that there was a thunderstorm in the area at the time and suggested a lightning strike near the mine entrance may have ignited methane, but no one reported seeing such a strike. Sensors from the US National Lightning Detection Network indicated at least two cloud-to-ground lightning strikes near the mine. Another early theory was that lightning struck a methane well that had previously been drilled from the surface to an area behind the seals. Methane wells are used to extract methane from coal seams and sometimes from sealed areas when methane levels are high.[8]

Storm systems are accompanied by low atmospheric pressure, which causes more methane to escape from coal seams and sealed areas. In winter the air is drier and less dense and creates a drier mine environment. Such conditions have been known to contribute to past mine fires and explosions. Other factors affecting methane liberation include whether the mine ventilation system is exhausting (negative pressure) or blowing (positive pressure), and the operating pressures of the fans.[8]

Fourteen men on the second cart escaped the initial explosion. The 12 trapped miners were on the first cart, which apparently passed the point where the explosion occurred. The foreman on the second cart, whose brother was among those trapped, the mine superintendent and three others entered the mine to rescue the trapped miners. They reached 9,000 feet (2,743 m) into the mine before air quality detectors indicated there was too much carbon monoxide to proceed. In addition, repairs they had made to ventilation controls raised fears that increased fresh air to the interior of the mine may cause a second explosion.[7]

Sole survivor's account of explosion

On April 26, 2006, the only survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., wrote a letter to the families of the victims. The letter was published by the Charleston Gazette on April 28, 2006.[9]

McCloy wrote: "About three weeks before the explosion that occurred on January 2, 2006, toward the end of our shift, Junior Toler and I found a gas pocket while drilling a bolt hole in the mine roof. Our detector confirmed the presence of methane. We immediately shut down the roof bolter, and the incident was reported up the line to our superiors. I noticed the following day that the gas leak had been plugged with glue normally used to secure the bolts."[9]

He remembered that on January 2, 2006 just after exiting the mantrip, "the mine filled quickly with fumes and thick smoke and that breathing conditions were nearly unbearable...." At least four of the rescuers, the emergency oxygen packs, were not functioning. "I shared my rescuer with Jerry Groves, while Junior Toler, Jesse Jones and Tom Anderson sought help from others. There were not enough rescuers to go around."[9]

Because of the bad air, they "had to abandon our escape attempt and return to the coal rib, where we hung a curtain to try to protect ourselves. The curtain created an enclosed area of about 35 feet [10.7 m]."[9]

They "attempted to signal our location to the surface by beating on the mine bolts and plates. We found a sledgehammer, and for a long time we took turns pounding away. We had to take off the rescuers in order to hammer as hard as we could. This effort caused us to breathe much harder. We never heard a responsive blast or shot from the surface."[9]

After becoming exhausted, they stopped trying to signal. "The air behind the curtain grew worse, so I tried to lie as low as possible and take shallow breaths. While methane does not have an odor like propane and is considered undetectable, I could tell that it was gassy."[9]

According to McCloy, Junior Toler and Tom Anderson tried to find a way out. "The heavy smoke and fumes caused them to quickly return. There was just so much gas."[9]

At that point the miners, despite their fears, "began to accept our fate. Junior Toler led us all in the Sinner's Prayer. We prayed a little longer, then someone suggested that we each write letters to our loved ones."[9]

McCloy "became very dizzy and lightheaded. Some drifted off into what appeared to be a deep sleep, and one person sitting near me collapsed and fell off his bucket, not moving. It was clear that there was nothing I could do to help him. The last person I remember speaking to was Jackie Weaver, who reassured me that if it were our time to go, then God’s will would be fulfilled. As my trapped co-workers lost consciousness one by one, the room grew still and I continued to sit and wait, unable to do much else. I have no idea how much time went by before I also passed out from the gas and smoke, awaiting rescue."[9]


It was reported that the early hours after the blast were chaotic and mining company did not call a specialized mine rescue crew until 8:04 a.m. — more than 90 minutes after the blast. The company notified the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) at 8:30. The company said it started its calls at 7:40. MSHA records two calls at 8:10 to personnel who were out of town due to the holiday. MSHA arrived on site at approximately 10:30 am. The first rescue crew arrived ten minutes later.

High levels of carbon monoxide (CO) and methane gas in the mine atmosphere made it necessary for rescuers to wait 12 hours after the explosion to begin to reach the miners. Tests taken through holes drilled from the surface showed that the air near where the miners were last known to be stationed contained 1,300 parts per million of CO. More than 200 parts per million is considered unsafe.

Since the blast disabled the mine's internal communications system, the condition of the trapped miners was unknown. Each miner had a self-contained self-rescue device that provided one hour of breathable air. Emergency supplies were stored in 55-gallon drums (205 L drums) within the mine.

Even after the gases abated, rescue teams had to proceed with caution, continually testing for hazards such as water seeps, explosive gas concentrations, and unsafe roof conditions. This limited their rate of progress to 1,000 feet (305 m) an hour. They checked in every 500 feet (152 m), and then disconnected their telephones until the next checkpoint in order to avoid the possibility of a spark creating another explosion. MSHA had deployed a 1,300-lb. (520 kg) robot into the mine as well, but pulled it out after it became mired 2,600 feet (792 m) from the mine entrance.

After more than nine hours of searching, rescue teams pulled out of the mine at about 3:40 a.m. Tuesday, January 3. Through an agency spokeswoman, Bob Friend of MSHA said the teams were withdrawn when they discovered that the mine's atmospheric monitoring system was still running. Due to the air quality in the mine, power to the system could have caused another explosion according to safety experts. Also, a borehole being drilled to check the mine's air quality was nearing the mine roof. "The bit and steel being used was not equipped to use water, which meant the bit was hot and could ignite an explosive mixture of methane," Friend told a reporter from the West Virginia Gazette. Rescue teams returned to the mine 6:22 a.m.

Locating the trapped miners

The 13 trapped miners were about 2 miles (3.2 km) inside the mine at approximately 280 feet (85 m) below ground. Five four-man teams tried to make their way through the entries which were 5.5 feet (167 cm) high. By 12:40 p.m. on January 3, they had reached 10,200 feet (3,109 m) into the mine. It was believed that the trapped miners were somewhere between 11,000 to 13,000 feet (3,352 to 3,962 m) from the entrance.

Two 6.25-inch holes were drilled from the surface into areas where the miners were believed to be. Microphones and video cameras lowered into them for ten-minute periods did not find any signs of life. Air quality tests performed through the first hole on the morning of January 3 indicated that carbon monoxide (CO) levels in that part of the mine were at 1,300 parts per million, over three times the tolerance of humans, 400 parts per million. Officials called this "very discouraging." A third hole encountered groundwater and could not be drilled all the way down.

However, the miners were very experienced and trained to find a safe part of the mine and barricade themselves into it in the event of an explosion or collapse. Experts expected that a third hole, if successful, could expand the opening and provide a better way of rescuing the miners than proceeding into the mine. Miners are required to carry a Self-Contained Self-Rescuer (SCSR) that provides a one-hour supply of oxygen for evacuation.

The first hint of the miners' status came around 5:00 p.m. on January 3 when it was reported that a body had been found. Because of the location of the body, those familiar with the miners and their jobs believed it was the fire boss, Terry Helms. Hours later, just before midnight, reports spread quickly that 12 of the 13 miners had been found alive. Thirty minutes after the reports of survivors, the rescue team told company officials that the original report was incorrect.

In the early morning of January 4, 12 of the miners were found dead, 41 hours after the incident began. One, Randal L. McCloy Jr., was found alive, but in critical condition. The remaining miners were found at the working face of the second left portion of the mine, some 2.5 miles from the mine entrance, behind a "rough barricade structure", as described by Hatfield.[10] This is the same area where drillings indicated high carbon monoxide levels.

About three hours after the reports, company CEO Ben Hatfield confirmed that there was only one survivor, Randal McCloy Jr. This was the first official report from the company since the victims were found. Hatfield stated that he asked state troopers to inform clergy to tell people inside Sago Church that there were now conflicting reports. But the news did not reach family members, who expressed anger that they were allowed to continue to celebrate for another two-and-a-half hours. Officials and reporters blamed "miscommunication" between rescuers and the command center for the erroneous information, but questions were raised about the news media's role in the spread of the incorrect information.[11] Soon after the first reports of survivors, several ambulances lined up at the scene to transport the miners. The hospital emergency room was prepared to treat them, said hospital spokesperson Turner.

Hatfield said that carbon monoxide levels in the area where the miners were found was in the range of 300-400 ppm when the rescue team arrived. This is near the safe threshold level to support life for 15 minutes. He said that carbon monoxide poisoning was the likely cause of death.

"Our intentions are to do the right thing and protect our people the best we can," Hatfield said. Federal and state mining officials will conduct a "thorough investigation" of the accident "with full company support."

On January 5, notes written by some of the deceased miners were submitted to family members.

Early response of government officials

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, who lost an uncle in the 1968 Farmington Mining Disaster, arrived at the Sago site on January 2 after flying in from Atlanta, Georgia, where he was preparing to watch the West Virginia University football team play in the Sugar Bowl. Congresswoman Shelley Moore Capito was also among the officials that joined the family members at the scene.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration had approximately 25 people on the scene at any given time, according to the Agency's Web site.

Mine reopens then closes

On March 11, 2006, in her story, "Mine reopens except for site of fatal blast," Associated Press writer Vicki Smith reported that federal inspectors had approved the Sago mine for reopening the previous day.

On March 16, 2006, Village Voice writer James Ridgeway, reported in Few Answers as Sago Mine Reopens, that the mine reopened March 15, 2006. He criticized, "So, not knowing what caused the explosion, or whether the mine remains vulnerable to that kind of accident, the mine owners started operations again as the federal and state safety officials stood by."

ICG closed the mine on March 19, 2007. On December 12, 2008 they announced on their website they would be closing it permanently.

Mine ownership

Anker West Virginia Mining

Anker West Virginia Mining is listed as the permittee for the Sago Mine.

International Coal Group (ICG)

International Coal Group, Inc.[12] was formed in May 2004 by investor Wilbur Ross, who led a group that bought many of Horizon Natural Resources' assets in a bankruptcy auction. The company produces coal from 12 mining complexes in Northern and Central Appalachia (Kentucky, Maryland, and West Virginia) and from one complex in the Illinois Basin.

Ross, originally operating as Newcoal LLC with four other investors, expressed interest in buying Horizon's nonunion properties, but not its six union operations. Horizon was then allowed to sever its union contracts, including pension benefits, by bankruptcy court, according to the Associated Press in the story "Coal Miners Lose Health Benefits" on August 9, 2004.[13]

In March 2005, ICG agreed to buy Anker Coal Group, Inc. In its third quarter report dated October 26, 2005, ICG reported, "All conditions to closing the acquisitions have been satisfied other than effectiveness of the related registration statement."[14]

ICG announced that on January 5, 2006, it brought in Dix & Eaton to assist with communications efforts regarding the Sago Mine accident.[15]

Testifying before MSHA on March 23, 2006, Vice President Sam Kitts described the corporate structure as follows, "Sago is part of Wolf Run Mining Company, which is a subsidiary of Hunter Ridge Mining Company. Hunter Ridge is a subsidiary of ICG, Inc."

"Serious and substantial" violations in prior inspections

In 2005, the mine was cited by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) 208 times for violating regulations, up from 68 in 2004. Of those, 96 were considered significant and substantial.[16] Additionally, West Virginia's Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training issued 144 citations over that year, up from 74 the previous year.

Some of those citations were for violations that could have been factors in the accident, such as failure to control methane and coal-dust accumulation, failure to properly shore up shafts against collapse and overall deficiencies in emergency planning.

Ken Ward, Jr., in a January 3, 2006 story in the Charleston Gazette, "Sago mine has history of Cave-in roof falls", wrote that the most recent MSHA inspections, from early October to late December, resulted in 46 citations and three orders, 18 of which were “serious and substantial.” (S&S) Violations include failure to follow the approved roof control and mine ventilation plans and problems concerning emergency escapeways and required pre-shift safety examinations. From early July to late September, MSHA found 70 violations, 42 of which were S&S. MSHA found 52 violations from April to June, of which 31were S&S.

Ward explains, "These "S&S" violations are those that MSHA believes are likely to cause an accident that would seriously injure a miner."

Davitt McAteer, MSHA chief during the Clinton administration told Ward, "The numbers don’t sound good....[they are] sufficiently high that it should tip off management that there is something amiss here. For a small operation, that is a significant number of violations." McAteer said the roof fall frequency "suggests that the roof is bad and that the support system is not meeting the needs of the roof."

On January 3, 2006, Tom Foreman interviewed Bruce Watzman of the National Mining Association, for Anderson Cooper 360 on CNN. According to the Association's website, it is "the voice of the American mining industry in Washington, D.C." and "only national trade organization that represents the interests of mining before Congress, the Administration, federal agencies, the judiciary and the media." Foreman asked "in making a quick review of these violations, you don't see anything there that leaps out at you as endangering miners' lives?" Watzman said no and when asked to explain, replied, "They could be paperwork errors, they could be reporting errors. A lot of violations, but many of which were not significant to really impact miner safety."[17]

By contrast, a report in Christian Science Monitor on January 6, 2006 quotes McAteer as saying "Sago raises red flags for mine oversight ... If you have a widespread practice of S&S violations over an extended period of time like we have here, it suggests that you've got much more serious problems than just paperwork violations".[18]

Originally MSHA reported on its website that none of the violations were considered "immediate risk of injury" and that all but three violations, related to shoring up the roof, were corrected by the time of the accident. But the current posting says, "Of the 208 citations, orders and safeguards issued in 2005, several involved significant violations that were the result of high negligence and MSHA ordered that mining cease in the affected area until the unsafe condition was addressed. However, less than half of the overall citations against Sago Mine in 2005 were for "significant and substantial" violations, and all but eight of the overall citations have been corrected by the operator. The eight remaining issues were being abated by the operator in compliance with the abatement provisions of the Mine Act.[19]

"Mining operations at the Sago Mine more than doubled between 2004 and 2005, and the injury rate was significantly above the national average. This prompted MSHA to dramatically increase, by 84%, its on-site inspection and enforcement presence. As a result, MSHA also took significantly more enforcement actions, 208 in total, against Sago Mine in 2005, requiring the operator to quickly correct health and safety violations in accordance with federal Mine Act standards."[19]

Relying on MSHA records, Ellen Smith, the editor of Mine Safety and Health News, comments on her publication's website in an article, "Sago Mine Facts," "Sago's accident rate was 17.04 for 2005, with 16 miners and contractors injured on the job. Sago’s accident rate was 15.90 in 2004 when the national average was 5.66.[20]

"Compare this accident rate to another small mine in West Virginia, Kingston Mining No. 1 Mine, which had an accident rate of 1.21 in 2005."[20]

Investigation by the West Virginia government


According to Ken Ward Jr. in his story, "Mine safety probe: Ex MSHA chief to oversee investigation" which appeared in the January 10, 2006 Charleston (WV) Gazette Governor of West Virginia Joe Manchin announced the previous day that he had appointed J. Davitt McAtteer, assistant secretary for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration during the Clinton administration to oversee a state probe of the disaster. "We will follow every avenue of inquiry, and we will take every step necessary to find the problems and to fix those problems," said McAtteer. Ward referred to him as "one of the nation's foremost mine safety experts."

According to January 12, 2006 Charleston Gazette story by Scott Finn, "6 legislators named to Sago probe", the committee will include Delegates Mike Caputo, D-Marion; Eustace Frederick, D-Mercer; and Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur; and Sens. Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall; Shirley Love, D-Fayette; and Don Caruth, R-Mercer.

Caputo, who started mining at 19, has been a United Mine Workers international representative since 1996. Love, a veteran broadcaster, covered the 1966 Siltex mining accident in Mount Hope, where seven miners died. Hamilton represents the Sago area and lost a close friend in the disaster. Frederick graduated with a degree in mining engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and has worked for close to 40 years, specializing in safe mining methods and equipment. Kessler chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which deals with state safety policies and regulations. Caruth has a private law practice which has included coal fatality cases.

Public hearing

On March 1, 2006 in a news release entitled "Public Hearings On Sago Mine Tragedy Set for May 2," Governor of West Virginia Joe Manchin announced the rescheduled March 14, 2006 hearing, delayed at the request of several family members of miners who died in the disaster. Explained adviser on mine safety Davitt McAteer, "It's a complex investigation and, as the miners’ families have said, it’s more important to determine the facts carefully and thoroughly than to act before all the facts are in."

McAteer would moderate the joint federal-state hearing to be held on the campus of West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, to include a panel of Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety & Training (WVMHST), state, labor and industry officials.

Manchin said, "I'm confident that May's public hearings will be very useful in providing crucial information to the families of these fallen miners."

McAteer said MSHA and the state Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training have agreed to publish transcripts of the so far secret interviews in the federal investigation before the May 2 hearing.

Preliminary Report

The independent investigation team commissioned by WV Governor Manchin released its preliminary report on the Sago disaster on July 19, 2006.

Investigation by the US Department of Labor

On January 4, 2006, U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, stated that its "Mine Safety and Health Administration is launching a full investigation to determine the cause of this tragedy and will take the necessary steps to ensure that this never happens again."[21]

Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA)

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) issued its own release announcing an independent eight-member team which would conduct the investigation including the cause of the explosion, compliance with regulations and the handling of information on the trapped miners' condition. The team would examine the site, interview mine personnel and others with information, review records and plans, inspect any equipment involved and issue any citations for violations.

Richard A. Gates, MSHA district manager in Birmingham, Alabama with experience as a ventilation specialist and mining engineer would head the team. Others would be John Urosek and Richard Stoltz, ventilation experts in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Dennis Swentosky, ventilation supervisor in Hunker, Pennsylvania; Robert Bates, electrical supervisor in Pikeville, Kentucky; Joseph O'Donnell, field office supervisor in Bessemer, Alabama; Clete Stephan, an engineer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Gary Harris, a special investigator in Barbourville, Kentucky.

In its January 5, 2006 version of questions, the MHSA site reiterated, "The team will be headed up by a senior MSHA safety professional who has not been part of the initial inspection and enforcement efforts."

On January 9, 2006, David G. Dye, acting assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health, issued a news release available on the MHSA website, stating "MSHA joins Governor Manchin and the State of West Virginia in announcing that we will conduct a joint investigation into the Sago Mine disaster, which will include a joint public hearing. West Virginia has its own mine safety inspection and enforcement agency, and we want to coordinate closely to ensure that our investigation is thorough and complete...Our full investigative report will also be made available to the families and the public."[22]

ICG tries to block UMWA participation

On January 18, 2006 mine owner International Coal Group (ICG) issued a press release objecting to United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) participation. "The UMWA is attempting to manipulate a provision of the federal regulations, [It] does not represent the employees at the mine...[and has] no familiarity or knowledge....that will benefit the investigation...[It] seeks to interfere with the investigation in order to exploit the tragedy...for [its] own revive organizing efforts that have floundered for more than a decade."[23]

UMWA International President Cecil Roberts responded in his own release that date, ""We are not ‘manipulating' anything–we are fulfilling our responsibility under the MSHA regulations and we will continue to do so to the best of our ability....Just because ICG doesn't like the law doesn't give them license to trample it. It's interesting to note that the very first thing ICG did this morning as part of the interview process that is taking place in Clarksburg was to attempt to get the identities of the miners who designated the UMWA as their representative. MSHA did not release their identities, nor will we. But the bigger questions are: Why do they need to know that, and what would they do with that information if they did know it?"

MSHA filed a motion in federal court to allow UMWA participation and according to Associated Press writer Vicki Smith in her January 26, 2006 story, "Judge says Union can be part of Mine Probe, U.S. District Judge Robert E. Maxwell ordered ICG to allow UMW officials from entering the mine, saying "There's no question that the public interest is best served by a complete and thorough investigation into the occurrence of the problems at the Sago Mine....There is a strong public interest in allowing miners to play a role in this investigation, as it is their health and safety that is at issue."

In January 27, 2006 IGA issued a release stating its intention to appeal.[24]

MSHA Freedom of Information Act Disclosure Policy

The Sago Mine Disaster brought public attention to criticism of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) policy first raised by Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News in her July 16, 2004 editorial, "Assault on Freedom of Information: The Public Has A Right to Know How Decisions Are Made."[25]

She reported complaints from the United Mine Workers of America for over a year, from mine operators and by her paper that they could no longer get information from MSHA though the FOIA. She stated that the previous week, "Ed Clair, the U.S. Labor Department’s Associate Solicitor for Mine Safety and Health, disclosed that, without public comment or input, MSHA secretly changed its long-standing policy of routinely releasing inspector notes under the Freedom of Information Act." The prior policy had been in effect since the Mine Act of 1977.

She continued, "Now, the public will no longer be able to get MSHA inspector notes from a mine inspection, unless the operator or miner is willing to go through legal proceedings and the discovery process. Under this new policy, the press is certainly excluded from these notes, miners may be as well, and it certainly hampers an operator's ability to resolve many MSHA enforcement disputes without litigation."

On January 11, 2006 Representative Henry A. Waxman (D-CA) asked Labor Secretary Chao to reverse MSHA's 2004 decision to exclude mine safety inspectors' notes in FOIA responses, citing how the agency's secrecy policy limited disclosure about safety violations at the Sago mine for years before the recent disaster.

On January 20, 2006, Education & the Workforce Committee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH), Workforce Protections Subcommittee Chairman Charlie Norwood (R-GA) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV), sent a letter to Chao, also requesting a reversal.

According to a news release by Boehner, on January 30, 2006, Acting Assistant Secretary for Mine Health and Safety David G. Dye wrote, “I have recently concluded that, given MSHA’s unique statutory framework, inspector notes should generally be released once a citation has been issued (or an inspection is closed without citations), rather than withholding the notes until all litigation is concluded. The policy will be effective immediately."[26]

Transcripts of interviews

Transcripts of 70 closed-door interviews of Sago miners, mine managers, mine rescue team members and state and federal mine safety inspectors, conducted over the period from January 17, 2006 to April 5, 2006, are available at both the Charleston Gazette and the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training websites.[27] MSHA has not posted the interviews on its site.

Transcripts were made public only after The Charleston Gazette filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the documents and posted the documents to its website on April 16, 2006. "At first, state officials released a limited number of the transcripts, but then made others widely available after the Gazette obtained them and posted them on the Internet," reported Charleston Gazette reporter Ken Ward, Jr. in his April 22, 2006 story, "Details of ICG's inquiry into Sago disaster sought."

During his interview with government investigators on March 23, 2006 ICG Vice President Sam Kitts repeatedly refused to discuss the company’s investigation. His Lexington, Ky attorney, Maraco M. Rajkovich, a Lexington, Ky., who also represented several other ICG employees during the interviews, said ICG had not authorized Kitts to answer questions about the investigation. Rajkovich said he did not know who was authorized to answer such questions.

MSHA publishes details of public hearing

In an April 13, 2006 Federal Register notice, MSHA said state and federal officials would question witnesses at the Sago public hearing. A representative of the Sago victims’ families will be able to submit questions for witnesses.

ICG refuses to release records

In that same April 22, 2006 Charleston Gazette story, "Details of ICG's inquiry into Sago disaster sought," staff writer Ken Ward, Jr., reported that investigators from MSHA and the West Virginia Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training were negotiating with International Coal Group (ICG) to release company’s internal investigation, as well as testimony, for a Manchin administration public hearing on the Sago disaster scheduled to start May 2, 2006 at West Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon.

"We certainly want to see what they have," said Bob Friend, acting deputy assistant secretary of labor for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Office of the Solicitor, Division of Mine Safety and Health

Attorneys James Crawford, Tim Williams and Bob Wilson will assist in the investigation according to MSHA's January 4, 2006 release available on the website.

Investigation by the U.S. Senate

On January 9, 2006, on his congressional website, the Senate Appropriations Committee: Labor, Heath Human Services and Education Subcommittee's ranking Democrat, West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, announced a January 19, 2006 hearing, crediting Senator Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Iowa Senator Tom Harkin, ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, for their help in its scheduling.

"The families of the Sago miners deserve to know what happened in that mine,” Byrd said. “Just as importantly, miners and their families across this country want to know that steps are being taken to prevent others from ever experiencing such pain."

He added, "The investigation at the Upshur County mine will tell us what caused that deadly explosion. But one conclusion is already evident: it’s time for the decisions affecting America’s miners to be made with their best interests at heart. That should be the legacy of the Sago miners. In Congress, there are tough questions to be asked of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). Is enforcement of coal mining regulations tough enough? Are the regulations on the books today current enough to handle the challenges posed by 21st century coal mining? Are mine hazards being minimized? These and other issues demand scrutiny, and the miners’ families deserve the answers."

On January 13, on its website, the committee issued a notice of the subcommittee meeting. Federal witnesses would be Acting Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health David Dye, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Mine Safety and Health Bob Friend, Coal Mine Safety and Health Administrator Ray McKinney and Mine Safety and Health Associate Solicitor, Edward Claire. Industry witnesses will be International Coal Group (ICG) President and CEO Ben Hatfield, West Virginia Coal Association Senior Vice President Chris Hamilton and National Mining Association Vice President for Safety and Health Bruce Watzman. West Virginia witness will be investigation leader Davitt McAteer. Labor witness will be United Mine Workers of America International President Cecil Roberts.

On January 18, 2006, on its website, the committee rescheduled the hearing for January 23, 2006. The witness list remained the same.

The Republican members of the subcommittee are: Arlen Specter (Chairman) (PA), Thad Cochran (MS), Judd Gregg (NH), Larry Craig (ID), Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX), Ted Stevens (AK), Mike DeWine (OH) and Richard Shelby (AL). The Democratic members are Tom Harkin (Ranking Member) (IA), Daniel Inouye (HI), Harry Reid (NV), Senator Herb Kohl (WI), Patty Murray (WA), Mary Landrieu (LA), Richard Durbin (IL).

The written versions of testimony from the hearings were posted on the Appropriations Committee website.

Second investigation by the U.S. Senate

In a January 10, 2006 letter found on his website, Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) wrote Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee chairman Mike Enzi (R-WY) and ranking Democrat, Edward M. Kennedy (MA). Also signing the letter were coal state senators Robert Byrd (D-WV), Rick Santorum (R-PA), Paul Sarbanes (D-MD), Richard Durbin (D-IL), Richard Shelby (R-AL), Evan Bayh (D-IN), Barack Obama (D-IL), Jim Bunning (R-KY), Ken Salazar (D-CO), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and Richard Lugar (R-IN). In a press release about the letter, Rockefeller stated,

"We need to know why the administration thinks that it can carry out a policy where it is committing fewer and fewer resources to meet an industry that has more and more needs."

"We need congressional hearings not only so that we can determine what happened at Sago, but, more broadly, about the state of mine safety across West Virginia and across the country."[28]

Enzi held a confirmation hearing January 31, 2006 for Bush's nominee to head the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Richard Stickler. He announced he had written a January 5, 2006 letter to Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao requesting “regular and comprehensive briefings on the progress and preliminary findings” of the MSHA investigation. and enforcement efforts at the Sago mine.

Enzi held an oversight hearing March 2, 2006 into safety procedures and enforcement measures related to the disaster.[29]

Investigation by the U.S. House of Representatives

On January 4, 2006, Representatives George Miller (D-CA) and Major Owens (D-NY) wrote a letter posted on Miller's website to House Education and Workforce Committee: Workforce Protections Subcommittee Chairman John Boehner (R-OH) asking for a hearing, saying Congress had abdicated its oversight responsibilities on worker safety issues, while the Bush administration filled worker safety agencies with industry insiders.

On January 5, 2006, Representative Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) wrote Chairman Boehner requesting him to schedule a hearing at the earliest possible date and posted the letter on her congressional website.

The chairman, along with subcommittee member Charlie Norwood (R-GA), issued a statement posted on the committee's website, "We expect MSHA to produce a thorough account of the events that occurred before, during, and after this tragedy, and the Committee will closely monitor this investigation to ensure its timely completion. Following a full accounting of the facts, the Committee will examine the results of the investigation and determine what appropriate steps may be necessary to ensure a similar tragedy never happens again."[30]

Findings to date on possible causes

Lightning strike and seismic activity

Weatherbug, a Germantown, MD-headquartered weather tracking system reported on January 6, 2006 that, “the evidence suggests that the lightning strike could have caused the explosion due to the correlation between the timing and location of the lightning strike and seismic activity.”

The company's equipment detected 100 lightning strikes in the region within 40 minutes of the explosion. A single, powerful lightning strike registered at or near the mouth of the Sago mine at 6:26:36 a.m. This strike held a particularly strong positive charge of 35 kAmps. (A typical strike is 22 to 25 kAmps and relatively rare. Positive lightning strikes tend to be especially destructive.)

Dr. Martin Chapman, PhD, a Virginia Tech research assistant professor, found that two independent sensors recorded a minor seismic event, possibly from the explosion, 2 seconds later at 6:26:38 a.m.[31]

Use of foam rather than concrete seals

In his January 13, 2006 story in the Charleston Gazette, "Sago blast area was recently sealed" Ken Ward, Jr., reported that state officials approved the use of “Omega blocks,” a dense foam product, to seal the mine, rather than the required concrete blocks. Deputy director of the West Virginia Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training told the state board of that group that, “the seals, made with foam, could withhold pressures of five pounds per square inch.”

U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration rules seals to be built using “solid concrete blocks” or alternate materials which will withstand 20 pounds per square inch of pressure.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in its report, "Protecting Coal Miners from Gob Explosions through Explosion-Resistant Mine Ventilation Seals (1993 to 2005)" reported that "without reliable seal designs, miners' lives could be in jeopardy from the consequences of an underground explosion."

NIOSH also noted that in an explosion caused by lightning in a sealed area of the Gary 50 Mine, 4 ft (1.2 m) thick pumped cement seals tested by NIOSH and approved by MSHA, "effectively contained the explosion, thereby sparing the miners working nearby."[32]

Proximity with active gas and oil wells

In the January 13, 2006 Charleston Gazette story "Gas wells near mine", staff writers Paul J. Nyden and Ken Ward Jr. report that according to just released state mine permit records, at least four natural gas wells were in close proximity to the mine. One appeared to be adjacent to the sealed area where the explosion is believed to have occurred.

Sparks from restarting machinery after holiday

On January 3, 2006, Jeselyn King and Betheny Holstein, writing for the Wheeling Intelligencer had written a story "Explosion's Cause Remains Unknown". Former MSHA official Davitt McAteer said restarting operations after a holiday weekend may have caused sparks to ignite an excess buildup of methane gas and coal dust in the mine.[33]

Federal Legislation: S.2231

Legislative History

On February 1, 2006, United States Senator Robert Byrd, (D-WV) introduced a bill to direct the United States Secretary of Labor to prescribe additional coal mine safety standards and require additional penalties for habitual violators. The bills was referred to the to the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.


  • The bill would mandate equipment to communicate with miners, locate miners, and provide sufficient caches of air.
  • Rescue teams must be staffed and on site.
  • Operators must notify the MSHA immediately when there is an accident. Any coal operator who fails to do so will be subject to a $100,000 fine, and/or 12 to 15 years imprisonment
  • The bill would mandate a rapid notification and response system.
  • The bill would create a new mandatory minimum penalty of $10,000 for coal operators that show “negligence or reckless disregard” for the safety standards of the Mine Act.
  • The bill would nullify an MSHA rule issued in 2004 that authorizes the use of belt entries for ventilation, which may have caused fire in another accident at Alma.
  • The bill would create a science and technology transfer office in MSHA to pull research and development ideas from other federal agencies for use in the mines.
  • The bill would create an ombudsman in the Labor Department’s Inspector General office for miners to report safety violations.

Using belt air for ventilating working sections in and of itself cannot cause a fire, though it can cause air from a belt fire to enter a working section. The belt entry must be ventilated with intake air regardless of whether the intake air is used to ventilate a working section. That regulations allow for using belt air to ventilate working sections could not have had anything to do with the fire, which occurred in an area out by working sections. Regulations require monitoring of belt air for CO or smoke if air ventilating the belt is also used to ventilate working sections and areas where mining equipment is being installed or removed. CO monitoring systems are very sensitive and, if installed correctly and sensors are functioning properly with low level alarms as is required, they provide early warning of a fire to a constantly manned location on the surface and to all affected areas before conditions become too hazardous for escape. It is extremely likely that this accident would have occurred regardless of whether or not the air was used for section ventilation. Many mines had approval to use belt air before the regulations were passed — by petitioning the courts, by providing safeguards such as CO monitoring and stringent sensor calibration schedules, and through investigations conducted by MSHA. Many of these mines have used belt air to ventilate working sections and areas where mining equipment is being installed or removed for years through the petition process. The extra air is often needed to alleviate the explosive hazards of methane. For most mines using belt air to ventilate working sections and equipment installation and removal areas, the inability to use belt air will increase the hazards associated with higher concentrations of methane in the mine atmosphere.

Office of Miners Health, Safety and Training (MHST)

In the first set of rules, the state Office of MHST will require caches of air supplies to give each miner at least 16 additional devices. Mines with coal seams taller than four feet (1.2 m) must have caches every 2,500 feet (762 m) in each working section. In smaller mines, there must be caches every 1,250 feet (381 m). Operators must submit plans for cache locations within 30 days for review and suggestions for change; however there is no deadline for equipping the mines with the caches.

Coal operators have no deadline to provide miners with improved rescue gear. It also sets no deadline for new communications equipment or tracking devices.

On February 2, 2003, MHST director Conaway said as soon as the equipment becomes available, "we’re expecting them to be in the mines....An operator is going to have to show us that they have it or that it’s on order....If they can’t get them, they are going to have to show us that they have ordered them and that they are trying to get them.”

According to Ward, Chris Hamilton, vice president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said “I know there are several months of backlog right now...There is still some concern on the reliability of the wireless communications and tracking system....A lot of that is still in the prototype stage and not commercially available.”

This last statement contradicts the finding of a 2003 MSHA report which called the systems “generally effective” and said the agency “encourages” their use.

Mine and Industrial Accident Rapid Response System

The West Virginia Division of Homeland Security proposes a rule that requests filed under the state Freedom of Information Act “shall be held in abeyance until appropriate notification of next of kin of any deceased or victims that are grievously injured.” The next of kin will have to give consent for the release of information.

Any requests for information about mine accidents reported to the new response system must include the “exact dates and times” of accidents and “the intended use of any information provided.”

Jimmy Gianato, the state’s homeland security director, said the language might need to be revised if questions are raised about properly responding to FOIA requests.

Federal legislation: H.R. 4695

On February 1, 2006, Representative Nick J. Rahall (D-WV) filed companion legislation in the US House of Representatives, where it was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Federal Rule changes for the Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977

Emergency Temporary Rules for Mine Operators

On March 9, 2006, David G. Dye, acting assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health, announced that MSHA was invoking a power which had only been invoked twice since its formation in 1978.

“This...will require the use of proven technologies and techniques to help miners evacuate quickly and safely after a mine accident....We are using the emergency temporary standard to get help into the field as fast as possible.”

A copy of the proposed rules was published that date in the Federal Register.[34]

Self-Contained Self Rescue Devices (SCSRs)

Provide additional self-contained self-rescue device for each miner underground in a storage area to be readily accessible in an emergency.


Install lifelines in all primary and alternate escape routes to help guide miners when visibility is poor.

Miner training

Quarterly emergency evacuation drills on transferring from one SCSR to another.

Accident Notification

Informing MSHA of an accident within 15 minutes

May 22, 2006 Omega Block moratorium

After a second mine accident which resulted in five deaths in which the foam blocks did not withstand an explosion at the Kentucky Darby, LLC Mine No. 1 in Harlan, Kentucky, David Dye, Acting MSHA director, announced a moratorium on the use of the blocks and a requirement to test for methane build up behind the seals.[35]

Writing about the announcement in his May 23, 2006 article, "Mine sealer banned," Brian Bowling of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review noted that "Officials at International Coal Group, which owns the Sago Mine, contend the agency's 20-pounds-per-square-inch standard is inadequate. The Ashland, Kentucky company hired a structural engineer, who determined explosive forces in the West Virginia mine reached as high as 60 to 90 pounds-force per square inch (psi)."[36]

This assertion was made by the company in its March 14, 2006 news release announcing the reopening of the mine and the findings of its initial study of reasons for the accident.[37]

Lawsuits settled

On November 4, 2011, lawyers for families of six of the deceased Sago miners filed papers indicating they had reached settlements over their wrongful-death claims with mine operator Wolf Run Mining Co., and resolved claims against parent company International Coal Group and other defendants. Terms were not disclosed. Families of five of the miners killed at Sago had already settled wrongful-death cases against the company, and survivor Randal McCloy Jr. settled a lawsuit filed over injuries he sustained in the disaster. Lawsuits filed by the families had cited a long string of safety violations prior to the disaster, the lack of required anti-lightning equipment, lax methane monitoring and poor construction of the mine seals.[38]



  1. "Jim Walter Resources Mine Disaster Archive" United Mine Rescue Association webpage, accessed November, 2009]
  2. Aram Roston,"Fire in the Hole" Mother Jones, September/October 2002, accessed November, 2009
  3. Matthew Davis,"US mining safety under scrutiny" BBC News, January 5, 2006
  4. James Dao,"12 Miners Found Alive 41 Hours After Explosion" New York Times, January 4, 2006
  5. "Final Sago Mine disaster lawsuits settled" Charleston Gazette, Nov. 4, 2011.
  6. "Judge cuts fines against coal company for Sago mine blast" Charleston Daily Mail, October 8, 2010.
  7. 7.0 7.1 Ken Ward, Jr. and Scott Finn,"13 miners trapped: Rescue effort underway after Upshur mine blast" West Virginia Gazette, January 3, 2006
  8. 8.0 8.1 Dennis B. Roddy,"Sago report blames lightning: Family members reject conclusion, have lost faith in MSHA itself" Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 10, 2007
  9. 9.0 9.1 9.2 9.3 9.4 9.5 9.6 9.7 9.8 Randal McCloy Jr.,"Text of Randal McCloy Jr.’s letter" The Charleston Gazette, April 28, 2006
  10. "Quecreek 'miracle' offered Sago families false hope", Jan 4, 2006
  11. Chris Maag,"Sago Mine Bosses in the Dock" TIME, January 5, 2006
  12. [ International Coal Group, Inc.
  13. "Coal Miners Lose Health Benefits, Ruling Says Bankrupt Co. Can Shed Medical Costs; Protests Ensue" CBS News, August 9, 2004
  14. "ICG Reports 3rd Quarter Results" International Coal, accessed November 2009
  15. "Dix&Eaton - media relations" Dix&Eaton, accessed November 2009
  17. "Trapped Underground: Mine Rescue Mission", January 3, 2006
  18. Mark Clayton and Amanda Paulson,"Sago raises red flags for mine oversight", January 6, 2006
  19. 19.0 19.1 "Sago Mine Accident - General Questions and Answers" Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), Posted 01/21/2006
  20. 20.0 20.1 Ellen Smith,""Sago Mine Facts", accessed November 2009
  21. "OPA News Release: Statement of U.S. Secretary of Labor Elaine L. Chao On the West Virginia Mine Incident"Department of Labor, January 4, 2006
  22. "MSHA Announces Joint Investigation and a Public Hearing in Sago Mine Accident Investigation" Mine Safety and Health Administration, January 9, 2006
  23. [1]
  24. [2]
  25. Ellen Smith,"Assault on Freedom of Information: The Public Has A Right to Know How Decisions Are Made" Mine Safety and Health News, July 16, 2004
  26. "Labor Department Makes FOIA Policy Change Regarding Mine Investigations" House Education & The Workforce Committee News Release, January 31, 2006
  27. "Sago Mine Accident Report" West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, accessed November 2009
  28. [3]
  29. "Hearing on The State of Mine Safety and Health", March 2, 2006
  30. "Joint Statement from Boehner, Norwood on the Federal Investigation into the Sago Mine Tragedy" U.S. Education & the Workforce Committee, January 4, 2006
  31. "WeatherBug Identifies Possible Direct Link Between Lightning Strike and Sago Mine Explosion" AWS, January 6, 2006
  32. "NIOSH Mining Program: Intermediate Outcome related to Preventing and Mitigating Mine Fires and Explosions - Protecting Coal Miners from Gob Explosions through Explosion-Resistant Mine Ventilation Seals" NIOSH, accessed November 2009
  33. "Explosion's Cause Remains Unknown" Wheeling Jesuit University, January 3, 2006
  34. [4]
  35. "MSHA Announces Testing of Alternative Seals and Atmosphere Behind Them, Temporary Moratorium on All Alternative Seal Construction" Mine Safety and Health Administration News release, May 22, 2006
  36. Brian Bowling,"Mine sealer banned" Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, May 23, 2006
  37. [|]
  38. "Final Sago Mine disaster lawsuits settled" Charleston Gazette, Nov. 4, 2011.

Related articles

Wikipedia also has an article on Sago Mine Disaster. This article may use content from the Wikipedia article under the terms of the GFDL.