SAGO, W.Va. – Jubilation turned to anger early Wednesday when relatives of 12 coal miners believed alive in a West Virginia coal mine blast were told that 11 of their loved ones were dead. One survivor was in critical condition at an area hospital.
People were storming out of Sago Baptist Church, where relatives had kept vigil. Mayhem had erupted as at least one fight broke out, and calls for paramedics were heard.
Three hours before, their mournful vigil had ended when they were told that the 12 miners had been found alive. Church bells pealed and family members had broken out into hymns.
Families learned of the deaths from mine officials, who told reporters later that Randal McCloy was the only survivor of the accident, and was in critical condition.
International Coal Group Chief Executive Officer Ben Hatfield told the families gathered at the church that “there had been a lack of communication, that what we were told was wrong and that only one survived,” John Groves, whose brother Jerry Groves was one of the trapped miners, told The Associated Press.
At that point, chaos broke out in the church.
Earlier Tuesday, the body of one miner was discovered.
Much of the technology that searchers hoped would lead them to the miners – who had had no contact with the surface since early Monday – was put aside in favor of rescuers who were perhaps only 1,000 to 2,000 feet from the remaining 12 men.
It was not distance but the fear of a deadly subterranean fog of carbon monoxide that had kept rescuers from reaching the men.
Earlier, Hatfield reported on the discovery of the dead miner.
“It’s a nightmare. It’s the worst news we could possibly deliver to these families who are waiting for good news,” Hatfield said.
Red Cross volunteer Tamila Swiger, who was at the church, said family members were “passing out and crying and just really in bad shape” after hearing about the unidentified body from Manchin.
Search crews Tuesday had been advancing more quickly than they had in the earliest hours of the rescue operation, outpacing a robot sent in before them. The robot later was abandoned after it bogged down in mud.
The pace of the advancing crews had prompted a halt to shafts being drilled from the surface in hopes that they could provide access for cameras and for tests of the air in the mine.
The first shaft, completed early Tuesday, found noxious fumes that would not sustain life. Two more shafts were stopped within 20 feet of a cavern because rescue crews would have been forced to evacuate when the cavern was punctured.
Mine officials said they were no closer to figuring out what caused the explosion that trapped the miners about 260 feet below the surface and about 13,000 feet – more than 2 miles – from the entrance of a drift mine that bores horizontally into a hillside.
Not far from the mine’s entrance, as many as 200 people had kept vigil in the Baptist church, hoping for word on loved ones.
Anna McCloy, 25, stood in the rain earlier Tuesday and said she and her husband, Randal, had talked repeatedly about him leaving the mines.
Randal McCloy is a certified electrician, but the lure of money to be made in the mines was too much for the young family to pass up, his wife said. She said they decided that for her to stay home and care for their two small children, mining was the only area job that paid well enough.
“We were just talking about how we’d like to get away from it, to stop mining and maybe try something else,” she said.
Coal mining offers some of the most financially attractive jobs in West Virginia, a state with the lowest household income in the nation and the second-highest poverty rate, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
And demand for miners is increasing, with companies raising wages and offering bonuses to attract a new generation of miners, said Cal Kent, vice president for business and economic research at Marshall University in Huntington.
Among the trapped miners was Jerry Helms, the fire boss responsible for ensuring there was no poisonous gas in the mine.
His children said their father, who worked in the mines for 30 years, sacrificed everything to make sure his family had food and a home.
“He never wanted to work in a coal mine. His reason for working in coal mines is what I would wear, what I would eat. He helped me pay my bills. He would put his life up so I could go see a movie,” said his son, Nick Helms, 25, who lives in Myrtle Beach, S.C.