'Sound of moans' led rescuers to surviving miner
Mining CEO says he regrets false news that most had lived
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TALLMANSVILLE, West Virginia (CNN) -- Rescuers found the sole survivor of an explosion that trapped 13 miners in a West Virginia coal mine "by the sound of moans," mining officials said Wednesday, about 12 hours after family members learned the initial report that their loved ones were alive was erroneous.
Without giving a reason for the miscommunication -- and without assigning blame -- mining executive Ben Hatfield said he deeply regrets "allowing the jubilation to go on longer than it should have."
Hatfield and Gene Kitts, senior vice president of International Coal Group, gave several possible reasons for how the false information came to be circulated as truth. (Watch Hatfield explain the miscommunication -- 6:09)
The rescuers were working under full-face oxygen masks -- through extreme stress and physical exhaustion -- and communicating in code over a possibly spotty connection to the operations base on the surface, Hatfield said.
Any of those conditions, or a combination thereof, could have contributed to the miscommunication, he added.
Kitts said the survivor, 26-year-old Randal McCloy, was "found by the sound of moans" and needed urgent resuscitation.
Upon finding McCloy, Kitts said, rescuers relayed the news, in code, to the operations base: "One item was found at break 56." Hatfield said earlier that the rescue team was speaking to the command center over the mine communication system on an open speaker audible to a number of people.
While treating McCloy, the rescuers had to walk six-tenths of a mile before taking the rail transport another 2 miles to the surface, Hatfield said. (Watch some of the most dangerous jobs -- 2:11)
The rescuers "were focused entirely on saving Mr. McCloy" and had neither the time nor inclination to call back with additional reports on the other miners, Kitts said.
The mining company never released information about the status of the miners, Hatfield said. Instead, the erroneous information was relayed via "stray cell phone conversations," he said, emphasizing that even mining executives were duped by the initial report that 12 miners had survived.
"We were all in jubilation. Grown men were giving bear hugs in the parking lot," he said.
The bodies of the remaining 12 miners were removed from the mine by 10:26 a.m. Wednesday, Hatfield said. Autopsies on the dozen bodies were scheduled for Thursday and Friday. (Timeline)
Just before midnight Tuesday, miners' families thought the men were alive after 41 hours of entrapment. Church bells rang in celebration, and friends and family members sang "Amazing Grace"
About 45 minutes later, mining executives were told that there was only one survivor, but that news was not immediately disseminated because they were uncertain whether it was true.
"We were just as suspicious of the second communication as the first. We didn't know what to think," Hatfield said at a one-hour news conference Wednesday. "Rightly or wrongly, we believed it was important to make factual statements to the family."
At 2:15 a.m., the executives received definitive word that only one miner had survived.
It was about three hours after the first news -- at roughly 3 a.m. -- that Hatfield, the CEO of International Coal Group, announced that 12 of the 13 were dead. (Watch relatives weep over 'a miracle taken away' -- 3:21)
Hatfield's announcement sent Anna Casto, who lost her cousin, into a tirade.
"No, he strictly told us they was alive," Casto said. "Three hours later, he come back and said they wasn't."
"We want to know why, and how people can get by with this," she said. (Full story)
Casto said the tragedy has shaken the faith of some in the community, who "don't even know if there is a Lord anymore," she said. "We had a miracle, and it was taken away from us."
John Casto was at a church where families had gathered when the false report arrived, and later when the terrible news was announced. After the first report, "they were praising God," he said. After the second, "they were cursing." (Watch a friend recount waiting on the porch for hugs -- 7:23)
One of those gathered at the church was Lynette Roby, who said the scene turned quickly to mayhem.
People began screaming, "You lied to us!" and "Hypocrites!" before charging officials, Roby said, further describing the church as "a mob scene." Police intervened, she said.
"They started running everywhere, and then next thing you know we see fists flying everywhere," her son, Travis, said. "Cops and people and everything was hitting each other."
Lynette Roby summed up the sentiment in the tight-knit hill community, saying, "It's the worst thing I've ever heard. I don't know how the information could get this far."
Hatfield said the families "certainly have some basis for their frustration having been put through this emotional roller coaster. I wouldn't wish that on anyone. I regret that it's happened. I would do anything if it had not happened."
He urged those devastated by the tragedy to be thankful that at least McCloy was saved.
"We prayed for 13 miracles," he said. "We want to celebrate the one miracle that was delivered."
On Wednesday evening, dozens gathered at the Sago Baptist Church -- where so many friends' and relatives' glee turned to grief -- for a candlelight vigil.
McCloy was in critical condition Wednesday in the intensive care unit at Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown.
McCloy suffered severe dehydration and a collapsed lung. He is on a breathing tube and is unable to speak.
"He suffered obviously a prolonged period of time in the mine. (He) suffered inadequate oxygen supply to the tissues, we call that anoxic, injuries to the brain. We are now recognizing that it involves his heart, his liver, the kidneys. And so multiple organs are involved, and so he is in critical shape," Dr. Larry Roberts told CNN on Wednesday evening.
The doctor also offered some hope.
"Even this evening, there has been some glimmer of improvement in his neurologic exam, so we can only hope for the best at this point," Roberts said.
Fortunately, McCloy did not suffer hypothermia or inhale any poisonous carbon monoxide gas during his time trapped in the mine, Roberts said.
President Bush offered comfort Wednesday, saying, "We send our prayers and heartfelt condolences to the loved ones whose hearts are broken. We ask that the good Lord comfort them in their time of need."
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao said the Mine Safety and Health Administration was launching an investigation to determine the cause of the tragedy. Hatfield said an internal investigation would also be conducted. (Full story)
Miners were alive after accident
Hatfield said it was apparent that the miners, who were found 13,000 feet within the mine, remained alive after the explosion of unknown origin that began their ordeal. They had built a "rough barricade structure," he said, and had donned their self-contained breathing apparatuses. The devices held one hour of oxygen each.
Hatfield said he had no way of knowing how long the miners were alive, but he speculated during Wednesday's news conference that the miners tried to make their way out after feeling the percussion of the explosion. (Read about mine problems in the past)
They were likely subjected to dense, heavy smoke as the mine's ventilation system shut down, he said. They then probably sought a safe breathing environment in which to "try to create a barricade and hold out for help," Hatfield said.
"We will never know the whole story, I don't think," he said.
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