MORGANTOWN, W.VA. Relatives of the Sago Mine victims demanded swift improvements to the emergency air packs that coal miners count on, and they bristled at suggestions that the men did not know how to operate the devices.
In a letter this week to the victims' families, Randal McCloy Jr., the sole survivor of the accident that killed 12 miners, said that at least four of their air packs did not work, forcing the men to share their oxygen.
"These rescuers need to be changed immediately," said John Groves, whose brother Jerry shared air with McCloy before succumbing to carbon monoxide poisoning, according to McCloy's account. "They need to be simplified to where the guys can use them in a panic situation."
Dirk Fillpot, a spokesman with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said Thursday that investigators had seen no evidence that any of the miners' air packs failed. He added that the agency was "looking at whether the miners received adequate training in the use of their SCSRs," or self-contained self-rescue devices.
Chris Toler, the 30-year-old son of another fallen miner, Martin Toler, said he was offended by the suggestion. "That was absurd. The miners have been in there many years, they all knew how to use their equipment," he said.
Toler, who went to work as a dispatcher at Sago in March, said improving air supplies for miners would be welcome, but MSHA also must change the way it handles rescue efforts. Rescue teams were not allowed to enter the mine until 11 hours after the blast because inspectors would not declare it safe.
"If you give miners 20 hours of air, but it takes you 40 to get them out, the additional air supplies would not help matters," he said. "The miners at the Sago Mine did what they were trained to do: barricade, and pound on a roof bolt, to produce sound so that they can be heard. They did their part, but MSHA failed to have a listening device to hear these miners."
Phil Smith, spokesman for the United Mine Workers union, said miners should be able to activate an air pack in a minute or less with proper training.
"It looks like they're trying to blame the miners here and that's not the right way to go," Smith said. "These guys were fighting for their lives and blaming them for not being able to operate the devices properly really compounds the tragedy."
The union has been working for several years with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health on self-rescue devices that are more compact, easier to wear and capable of providing a longer supply of air.
The Sago miners had packs manufactured by Monroeville, Pa.-based CSE Corp., which said it is looking into the use of the air packs at the Sago Mine.