MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - The miners union on Thursday blamed last year's deadly Sago Mine explosion on friction between rocks and a metal roof-support system, rather than lightning.
The United Mine Workers report said the chance that lightning caused the methane gas blast is "so remote as to be practically impossible."
The union's report differs from the conclusions of state investigators and the mine's owner that a lightning strike somehow traveled two miles and ignited gas that had accumulated naturally in a mined-out and sealed-off area. A third report, by a former federal Mine Safety and Health Administration chief and special adviser to Gov. Joe Manchin, said lightning could not be ruled out.
Mine owner International Coal Group Inc. issued a statement dismissing the report as "wholly unreliable" and "nothing more than political grandstanding" designed to help the union's organizing efforts.
The January 2006 explosion killed one miner and left 12 others trapped underground for more than 40 hours. By the time rescuers reached them, carbon monoxide poisoning had killed all but one of the remaining men.
"None of these miners should have died," union President Cecil Roberts said at a news conference in Washington, D.C. "Not one." A lightning strike was documented at about the same time as the explosion. But unlike other coal mine blasts linked to lightning, Sago had no metal conduit that could have carried the charge that far, according to the union, which participated in the Sago investigation as a legal representative of several workers at the nonunion mine.
Rather, the union contended, a spark likely came from rocks banging together or into the network of metal screens, plates and bolts used to hold up a frequently wet and steadily collapsing shale and sandstone roof. Metal rubbing on metal also could have created a spark, the report said.
The report said ICG should have done more to address the deteriorating condition of the roof.
ICG President Ben Hatfield called the roof friction theory "patently absurd" and unsupported by evidence. He said the union representatives who took part in the investigation lacked the training of the experts who helped his company and the state reach their findings.
ICG, which is facing lawsuits by families of most of the Sago victims, has said the lightning evidence is too strong to ignore, and has taken safety measures aimed at preventing similar explosions.
The federal mine safety agency has yet to release its own findings about Sago.
After the union news conference, the daughter of one of the victims said she has never believed the lightning theory.
"It was safety issues," said Ann Merideth, daughter of Jim Bennett. "We have just been through sheer hell, and knowing that my dad didn't have to die - it breaks my heart."
Associated Press writer Jennifer Kerr contributed to this report
from Washington, D.C.
(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)