Dying miner’s timeline shows some were alive at least 10 hours
PHILIPPI, W.Va. – After a quarter-century in the coal mines, Jim Bennett was a few months shy of retirement and accustomed to counting down the hours.So after Monday’s explosion in the Sago Mine left a dozen dazed and disoriented miners huddled at the end of a tunnel, their breathable air wasting away, Bennett’s family says he took out a piece of paper and his wristwatch, and he started a timeline.The first of his handful of entries came at 11:40 a.m., five hours into the wait to be rescued. The last, with the scrawl and tone of his words getting looser and more desperate, was logged at 4:25 p.m., near the 10-hour mark.”Each time he documented, you could tell it was getting worse,” Bennett’s daughter Ann Merideth told The Associated Press on Saturday after receiving the note with her father’s body. “Later on down the note, he said that it was getting dark. It was getting smoky. They were losing air.”The first rescuers weren’t sent into the mine until an hour after Bennett’s last entry. By the time they reached the miners and brought them out of the mine about 42 hours after the explosion, all were dead except the youngest, who was unconscious and clinging to life. Another miner died in the initial blast.”He didn’t know how much more time he had. But he wanted everybody to know to tell my mom that he loved her,” Merideth said of her father’s note. “And he wanted me and my brother to know that he loved us.”Merideth spoke of her 61-year-old father in front of a makeshift memorial of white crosses and mine hats in this tiny coal town. She said her father’s final words left her with both solace and anger – that rescuers didn’t act more quickly to reach the miners while they were still alive.”Yes, it bothers me tremendously,” Merideth said. “I’m not sure how many miners went and was able to live as long as my father had, which I’m sure most of them did, and it really bothers me because it took them so long.”By the 24-hour mark, when rescuers penetrated the mine with a drill and got no response to their taps, the miners inside may have at least been incapacitated by the carbon monoxide, methane and coal dust. Officials said the initial 11-hour lag in getting rescuers into the mine was necessary to clear the mine of high concentrations of poisonous fumes.International Coal Group Inc. chief executive Ben Hatfield, whose company operates the mine, said rescuers had to follow state and federal laws that requires a methodical approach to avoid rescuers getting trapped, injured or killed themselves.”It is painful, and it’s slow, and it was maddening as we were all just doing our level best as we were attempting to get there,” Hatfield told the AP. “And we’re going to do our best to make sure that families understand.”Bob Friend, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration’s acting deputy assistant secretary of labor, echoed his words, saying a primary concern in such a rescue operation is the safety of the rescue teams.The lone survivor, 26-year-old Randal McCloy Jr., remained critically ill Saturday with possible brain damage from oxygen deprivation and carbon monoxide poisoning. However, doctors at a Pittsburgh hospital where he was treated said he was showing dramatic signs of recovery, including flickering his eyelids, and was stable enough to be flown back to a hospital closer to his West Virginia home Saturday night.Merideth, who did not provide a copy of her father’s note to the AP, said she had long suspected there would have been a last message from her father, a deeply religious man who prayed for his fellow miners every day.Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA official who has worked in mine safety for 25 years, said Bennett’s note points out the need for miners to have oxygen systems that can last longer. He added that the miner’s timeline suggests that the barricaded group found a pocket of clean, usable air that would have allowed them to use their oxygen systems only intermittently.And while he understands concerns by families that the rescuers didn’t move faster, Oppegard said rescues are very dangerous and have to be done with “all deliberate speed.” In 1976, 11 rescuers died when there was a second mine explosion in Letcher County, Ky.”You don’t have a bunch of cowboys rushing in,” he said.Federal and state investigators have yet to enter the mine, where additional ventilation holes are being drilled to purge the mine of poisonous gases, a process that may not be completed for a few days.Although the mine is closed, Hatfield met with about 145 employees Saturday to assure them there will be no layoffs. He said employees would be paid for the whole week, and offered them temporary jobs at ICG’s other mines in the region, The company has operations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Illinois.After their wrenching vigil of raised and shattered hopes during the recovery effort was played out in front of television cameras, the families took pains to carry out their grieving in private.Police cars lined up to keep television trucks, reporters and others away from the visitation for 28-year-old David Lewis in Philippi. In Buckhannon, two state troopers guarded the entrance to a funeral home where the visitation for 51-year-old Alva Bennett was held.Gov. Joe Manchin spent about an hour at a funeral home with the family of 56-year-old mine roof bolter Jerry Lee Groves. The governor presented relatives with a memorial proclamation from the state and hugged Groves’ mother, Wanda.Groves’ family read a letter that 11-year-old Eric Rose wrote to his grandfather the day his body was discovered:”Dear Papa,I love you. I’ll always remember when you gave me rides on the four-wheeler, and I’ll never forget the rides you gave me on the Harley. Love you, Eric.”—Bsharah is an AP Radio reporter. Associated Press National Writer Deborah Hastings and reporters Connie Mabin and David Dishneau contributed to this report.