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Feds To Unveil Conclusions On Sago Mine Disaster

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. (AP) - Federal investigators will issue their
report Wednesday on the Sago Mine disaster, which killed 12 West
Virginia coal miners in a January 2006 explosion and prolonged
entrapment underground.
Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Richard E. Stickler
and lead investigator Richard Gates will brief the victims'
families and surviving miner Randal McCloy Jr. privately at West
Virginia Wesleyan College in Buckhannon, then make the findings
public.
At least one family hopes the report, 16 months in the making,
provides answers that others have not.
But John Groves, whose brother Jerry died inside the mine,
doesn't expect revelations. He believes the report will again blame
a lightning strike for igniting a pocket of methane gas, but fail
to explain the path the electricity followed underground into the
sealed chamber.
"I don't think they can unequivocally tell us how it got there.
There is no way they can say this is it, this is the spot it
entered into the mine," he said Tuesday. "I don't think there's
any proof inside the mine for them to tell us that."
McCloy family spokeswoman Aly Goodwin Gregg said her clients are
also interested in hearing what federal investigators have to say.
McCloy was carried out of the mine more than 41 hours after the
explosion.
"They're hoping for answers, but they're just not sure they're
going to get them," she said. "They're glad that this is the last
report that they will receive, and they'll form their opinion
afterward."
Two previous reports - one by the West Virginia Office of
Miners' Health, Safety and Training, one by mine owner
International Coal Group Inc. - identified lightning as the most
likely cause. A third, by a former MSHA chief and special adviser
to Gov. Joe Manchin, said lightning could not be ruled out.
The United Mine Workers union, which participated in the state
and federal investigation, then issued its own report, offered a
dissenting viewpoint: Its experts believe the spark came from
friction in the mine's deteriorating rock roof and the metal
support system used to hold it up.
The company idled the Sago Mine in March because of high
production costs and low coal prices.
In December, Stickler told The Associated Press that if
lightning did play a part in the blast, he wanted his investigators
to explain how.
"If it was lightning, how did it get in the mine? If you don't
know that, you don't know how to keep it out, do you?" he said at
the time. "There's questions there we need the answers to."
Atmospheric alarms in the mine sounded at nearly the same
instant as a documented lightning strike, at 6:26 a.m. on Jan. 2,
2006. But the United Mine Workers - which was allowed to legally
represent some workers at the nonunion mine - dismissed the
lightning theory as "so remote as to be practically impossible."
The UMW argued that unlike other coal mine blasts linked to
lightning, there was no metal conduit at Sago that could have
carried the charge for two miles.
Groves said circumstantial evidence is not good enough.
"Undoubtedly, everything does point to lightning," he said.
"But there are people who have been in prison for 20 years and
everything pointed to the fact that they did the crime, and then it
turns out they're innocent."
Groves said he will be "surprised and ecstatic" if MSHA could
pinpoint the specifics of the disaster "because they'd know a way
to prevent it from happening again."
"That's what this is all about to me," he said. "This report
has nothing to do with anything but prevention. ... And the
prevention should start tomorrow, immediately after the meeting."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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