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Joy gave way to grief and anger on Wednesday when a West Virginia coal town learned that 12 of 13 miners trapped in a mine explosion had died, three hours after friends and family were mistakenly told that all but one had survived.

Joy gave way to grief and anger on Wednesday when a West Virginia coal town learned that 12 of 13 miners trapped in a mine explosion had died, three hours after friends and family were mistakenly told that all but one had survived.

The one man survived after being trapped since Monday’s blast that sent lethal gases through the Sago mine in central West Virginia. Randal McCloy, 27, was conscious and being treated for a kidney problem and remained hospitalized in critical but stable condition, doctors said.

The way the news of the dozen miners’ deaths was conveyed angered many family members who stood vigil at a nearby church gripped by apprehension, jubilation, then despair as the reports reaching them from the mine shifted overnight.

‘I feel that we were lied to all along,’ said Anne Meredith, whose father died, adding that she planned to sue the mine owner, International Coal Group Inc.

Company officials delayed a scheduled news briefing during the day on Wednesday before detailing the chain of events.

Ben Hatfield, president of ICG, told a news conference: ‘I regret the manner in which events unfolded. Communication problems only added to the tragedy.’

Hatfield blamed the earlier report on a miscommunication, and said the company had waited until it could determine which of the miners were dead or alive to tell the families.

Rescuers who descended into the mine had searched tunnels cautiously before finding the trapped miners, who had tried to escape the lethal gases and abandoned their transport car. The rescuers ‘found the miners by being drawn to the sound of moans,’ Hatfield said.

Hatfield said the first word received from rescuers was that 12 miners were found alive. Officials had been told not to pass on information unless it had been verified, but that report set off a celebration that spread to families at the church.

The moans turned out to be from the one surviving miner.

Forty-five minutes later, a second message was sent to the rescue center contradicting the earlier report, saying there was only one survivor, Hatfield said.

CLINGING TO HOPE

‘The immediate reaction in the command center was that report of one survivor might be erroneous,’ he said. ‘We clung to the hope that the 11 others might be in a comatose state.’

Relatives celebrated for nearly three hours before being informed there was only one survivor.

‘It hit people’s hearts so hard … One guy said what in the hell has God done for us, but just a few minutes before that we was praising God, because they believed that they (were) alive,’ John Casto, a friend of the miners, said on CNN.

Several Wednesday morning newspapers that went to press before the truth emerged ran front-page headlines such as ‘Miracle in the Mine.’ ‘Alive! Miners beat odds’ was USA Today’s headline with a picture of two smiling family members.

The men had been trapped about 13,000 feet inside the mine since 6:30 a.m. (1130 GMT) on Monday.

Doctor Lawrence Roberts at West Virginia University Hospital told a news conference McCloy’s collapsed lung had re-expanded and that he had communicated with his wife through facial expressions and squeezing hands.

‘I think youth always helps,’ he said, commenting on possible reasons why McCloy survived while his colleagues, many of whom were much older, had died.

Terry Helms, found dead near the site of the explosion, was the first of the missing miners to be discovered. The later discovery of the empty transport car farther away fueled hopes the 12 other men had escaped to an area free of toxic gases.

On Tuesday, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin publicly called for a ‘miracle.’ On Wednesday one sign hung outside the local Donut Shop read, ‘Only one miracle.’

The sign was put up by employee Jacqueline Spangler, whose uncle, Marty Bennett, 50, was one of the mine victims.

A candlelight vigil for the victims was set to take place at the church at 6:30 p.m. (2330 GMT)

The coal company said it would set up $2 million fund for the families of the dead miners and called for donations.

There was no explanation for the blast in a recently closed section of the mine, which employs about 145 miners and produces about 800,000 tons of coal annually.

Since October, the Mine Safety and Health Administration has issued 50 citations to the Sago mine, some as recently as December 21, including citations for accumulation of combustible materials such as coal dust and loose coal. The agency said it would investigate the explosion.

ICG Chairman Wilbur Ross told Reuters there were no plans to close the mine permanently and that the tragedy would not alter company plans to develop coal production at several mines it acquired last year, including the Sago mine.

‘We will not reopen the mine until we understand the cause and whether there was a possibility of a repeat,’ he said by telephone from his New York office.

Source : today.reuters.com

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