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Inside the Sago Mine Tragedy
Aired January 7, 2006 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
ANNOUNCER: A close-knit community rocked by tragedy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We do not know what caused this explosion.
ANNOUNCER: A race against time for survivors.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To you hear them say they're all safe, we've got them, you're just afraid. Like I'm scared to death.
ANNOUNCER: A tragic twist as prayers turned to a miracle. A miracle that turns to tears.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We had a miracle and it was taken away from us.
ANNOUNCER: The story of a community.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I just wanted the truth and I wanted the truth upfront.
ANNOUNCER: The story inside the mine.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just before I went in I heard that that was serious.
ANNOUNCER: Hope and heart break, inside the Sago mine tragedy.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We'll understand it all by and by.
ANNOUNCER: It was a 44-hour odyssey of desperation, prayers, and heart breaking reversals and ultimately despairs. The explosion at the Sago Coal Mine here in West Virginia trapped 13 miners on Monday. The desperate rescue mission that followed went on for nearly two days and for a brief moment it appeared that a miracle had indeed happened. In the end tragedy.
The grief felt by those here is shared across the nation but especially in places like Somerset, Pennsylvania and Brookwood, Alabama, towns that know all too well the dangers of mining. Over the next hour hope and heartbreak inside the Sago Mine tragedy.
Upshur County, West Virginia, home of the Sago Mine. Peaceful and tranquil on the surface. Violent underneath. One billion tons of coals are mined each year in the United States, most of it to make electricity. Upshur County, especially the tiny community of Talmansville now knows the feeling when the worst happens. Other communities where coal means jobs and coal means money know that feeling well.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We will remember the fallen miners.
ANNOUNCER: Communities like Brookwood, Alabama. Somerset, Pennsylvania. Recent coal mining accidents, in one the miners got out. In the other, they did not.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: A hard life, a scary life. Always waiting on accidents. What's new, huh?
ANNOUNCER: Visit a place like the Coal Miner's Cafe in Somerset or the doughnut shop near the Sago Mine; you'll understand how an accident like this can affect a small community.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Just about everybody here either has a relative or knows someone, you know, friends, one thing, that either has worked at the mine or is working at the mine.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Families still need jobs to stay in West Virginia. And coal mining, unfortunately is one of the better paying jobs.
ANNOUNCER: Donut shop owner Richard Comigees (ph) wanted to do something. He struggled to put up a sign.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Oh, no.
RICHARD COMIGEES (ph), DONUT SHOP OWNER: Everybody here knew these people in some way. Some of them came to the shop pretty regular here. It's just hard. Just hard.
RANDI KAYE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Do you want to show that to us?
PEGGY COHEN, MINERS DAUGHTER: Two different pictures.
ANNOUNCER: CNN's Randi Kaye spent some time with the family of Fred Ware one of the miners killed at Sago. Fred worked on Monday to earn some extra holiday pay. His daughter, Peggy Cohen.
COHEN: He was entirely committed to the mines, has been since he was 18 years old. My grandfather was a miner. And that's all he wanted to do. He never perceived to do anything else. Just like his dad did. He'd bring my kids pieces of coal out and say, look. There's a fossil and show them how to put clear fingernail polish on it to bring out what looked like a fossil.
KAYE: Was there ever a time when you worried about your dad in the mines?
COHEN: Oh, all the time. You know, when he was getting older and, you know, he didn't move as quick.
KAYE: Did he ever worry about dying in the mines?
COHEN: No. I don't think he ever worried. He said that's where he would die.
ANNOUNCER: In communities across the country where coal means jobs and coal means money, they hope never to see the day they saw here in Talmansville.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Big boom. It shook houses all around here.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The hung, white light and a few seconds later like somebody set off a powder keg.
ANNOUNCER: Monday morning, January 2nd. As the day dawned workers at the Sago Mine began their first workday of the New Year but the early morning calm was suddenly shattered.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This just in to CNN. News out of West Virginia, a mine explosion. The underground explosion at a coalmine there.
ANNOUNCER: A freak explosion ripped through the mine. Six miners made it out alive, 13 others trapped, 260 feet below ground.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're being informed we are on scene -- we're being informed that there are several men trapped inside. We're going to need a lot of help.
ANNOUNCER: The two-mile entrance to the mine was filled with deadly gasses. Rescue crews could do nothing. It was the only way in or out. The West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin was in Atlanta for a University of West Virginia football game when he heard the news he immediately headed back.
GOV. JOE MANCHIN, (D) WEST VIRGINIA: I'm sure all the families have gathered together now and are all pulling their strength from that and praying for the best and I know the state is doing everything, the government is doing everything possible to make sure that we have a safe conclusion to this.
ANNOUNCER: Manchin is no stranger to mining mishaps. He lost his own uncle and many of his childhood friends in the West Virginia mining accident of 1968, 78 men died. As word spread from the Sago Mine, families began to huddle and pray in the Sago Baptist Church.
The plight of Sago's trapped miners resonated at another church in Brookwood, Alabama, a tight-knit mining town that knows the agony of watching and waiting. On September 23rd, 2001, underground explosion left this town praying for a miracle.
REV. GARY YOUNGBLOOD: Leading in prayers at the Union Hall, we still had confidence that they would survive.
JOHN WATHEN, BROOKWOOD RESIDENT: I was just like everybody else, hoping that there was going to be a miracle, that they would have been in another part of the mine when the blast took place. There's corridors down there they could have been in. There are a lot of things that you could pray for and we did.
WANDA BLEVINS, WIDOW: I know in my mind I kept saying, well this is not going to be bad. This won't be bad, because David knows exactly what he's doing. He's a good miner. He has been working in the mines for 34 years. So I know this won't be bad. And I know that god, you won't let nothing happen.
ANNOUNCER: Coming just 12 days after September 11 the Brookwood tragedy had its own heroes, a team of miners braved fire to rescue a trapped co-worker. David Blevins led the way.
BLEVINS: The men loved David. David was the kind of boss that wouldn't ask a man to do something that he wouldn't do.
YOUNGBLOOD: I know Mr. Dave Blevins probably knew more about rescue than anybody else and he knew the danger, but they were ready to go and they were ready to go try to rescue a fallen brother.
RICKY ROSE, BROOKWOOD MINE SURVIVOR: I seen it on the tracks. It was spinning sideways.
ANNOUNCER: When a second explosion engulfed the tunnels miner Ricky Rose was left with no other option than to save his own life.
ROSE: When that happened, it rolled me 75 foot through the air. I jumped up, didn't know where I was at, didn't know if I was dead or alive. Couldn't see my hand in front of me. Put your hand right there and you couldn't see it. All I could hear was people screaming and hollering. I didn't know which way to run. Didn't know where to go. I was scared to death. I was petrified.
ANNOUNCER: Thirteen bodies were pulled out of the Brookwood Mine.
BLEVINS: You just don't believe it. You just, in my case I guess I just refused to believe it and you just think that this can't happen to you. You know that your husband has got 34 years in the mines. He knows what to do, so you just think, how cans this possibly happen?
WATHEN: I think the blast in West Virginia was relived the minute that it was aired here. I think it ripped open all of the old wounds. My heart went out instantly to the people in West Virginia but to my friends here, too. I could feel for them, having to go through this again, to have all of this flash back in their face.
ANNOUNCER: Communities united not only by tragedy but by faith.
YOUNGBLOOD: There were people praying all night long in Brookwood, Alabama for those families and miners. There was still hope. They were praying that they would survive somehow or the other.
ANNOUNCER: Monday evening, Governor Manchin was now on the ground and receiving updates from Sago.
MANCHIN: I understand we have a crew down in. You make sure you call me back and brief me before I go to that church because people will be asking me questions. Is anybody talking to the families at all? ANNOUNCER: Preparing to meet with the families for the first time, Governor Manchin had hoped to deliver good news.
MANCHIN: The rescue team is about to go back in. That means the air quality has to be good enough so there was no danger to them or very minimal danger. That's a good sign.
ANNOUNCER: But information was still hard to come by.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: How much information have you been given about your brother and the fate of those trapped inside?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, right now we know that my brother Terry was the first one into the mine early this morning.
ANNOUNCER: As day one came to an end, the family of trapped miner Terry Helms was holding onto hope, 50-year-old Terry Helms wanted a better life for his son, Nick, a life away from the coal mines. But now Nick was back, helping his family keep the faith.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They were going to make it. We'll stay here for you guys.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To hear them say, they're all safe, we got them, everybody is saved, you're just afraid. Like I was scared to death.
ANNOUNCER: When I caught up with the family this week all they could do was wait.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Sitting still is the hardest part.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Right. I'm waiting for those two hours to go by that they're going to come and update you.
ANNOUNCER: Do you look forward to these meetings or do you dread them?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, in a way I do then in a way I don't because, you know, you don't want to keep hearing bad news each time they come out but, you know, you got to expect the worst.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I'll wait here as long as it takes. I will be waiting.
ANNOUNCER: Waiting that would only get worse.
ANNOUNCER: What would you like to tell the viewers at home watching right now?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Pray.
ANNOUNCER: By Tuesday morning the 13 coal miners trapped deep inside the Sago Mine would need those prayers. Rescuers had drilled narrow holes into the mine and what they found was discouraging, lethal levels of carbon monoxide.
BEN HATFIELD, CEO, INTERNATIONAL COAL GROUP: There is hope they could be in another location or they could be barricaded somewhere, protected from that level of carbon monoxide. But, certainly, if they were in this particular location that's not an environment that would sustain life.
ANNOUNCER: And more grim news soon followed. A camera and microphone lowered into the mine found no sign of the miners.
MIKE ROSS, COORDINATED DRILLING EFFORTS: Once we drilled into the mines then we lowered the drill pipe down into the mine, we shut all the engines down and listened for sounds, hoping to hear something. We didn't hear anything. Then we took a hammer and were beating on the side of the drill pipe to send out a signal. We still received nothing back.
ANNOUNCER: Drilling these holes didn't begin until 20 hours after the explosion leaving many experts to ask why hadn't rescue efforts begun sooner?
DAVITT MCATEER, MINE SAFETY EXPERT: The enemy of an unsuccessful rescue is time and the fact of assembling the teams at the site and bringing the drills in at the site was a troubling kind of experience.
ANNOUNCER: With no apparent sign of life inside the mine, friends and family stayed huddled inside the Sago Baptist Church, still hoping for a miracle.
TERRI GOFF, FRIEND OF TRAPPED MINOR: It was crowded a little bit. We realized that there's still hope. They could be stuck in another place. And they're going to drill in another place and maybe we can still find these guys.
MICHELLE MAUSER, RELATIVE OF TRAPPED MINER: I'd just like for everybody to keep praying for everybody's family and my family and just keep their spirits up and just pray that there's one last miracle out there.
ANNOUNCER: With every crucial second, rescuers dug deeper and faster. By mid morning, rescue teams had reached the 10,000-foot mark. The miners were believed trapped between 11,000 and 13,000 feet from the mine entrance. An hour later, rescuers moved ahead of a search robot that was exploring areas thought to be too dangerous for humans. Still, no sign of the miners. Officials were peppered with questions throughout the day. How did it happen? Was the blast caused by lightning?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We do not know what caused this explosion. It doesn't make sense to us that the methane levels are low everywhere we go and, yet, we had an explosion that seems to resemble a methane explosion.
ANNOUNCER: Last year the Sago Mine was cited for more than 200 safety violations. Some of them were considered significant and substantial by inspectors. Among them, at least 16 related to inadequate monitoring of the buildup of explosive gasses.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Their injury rate is three times the national average. Again, it's another indication that the program you have in place isn't working and that you're having more accidents than you should.
ANNOUNCER: Officials with the International Coal Group who operate the Sago Mine say they have addressed the violations and improved safety conditions since acquiring the mine last year. Underground mining is one of the most dangerous occupations in the country. CNN's Gary Tuckman visited a mine at the Colorado School of Mines. He got a first-hand look at what miners and rescuers do in crises.
GARY TUCKMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right now we are going down the shaft, hundreds of feet into the mine. One of the shafts that go into this mine. I'm being followed by a student here at the Colorado School of Mines. Brack Spencer is coming down, he is a senior is coming down. He is majoring in miner engineering. We wear safety gear because this is still a mine where you have to take the proper precautions helmets, glasses, and boots. We have these devices that convert carbon monoxide into carbon dioxide.
What are these called?
BRAD: The w 65 rescuers. A miner will be able to get themselves out safely with this.
TUCKMAN: Bob, your title?
BOB: I'm the director of the Mine Safety Program here at the Colorado School of Mines.
TUCKMAN: You train mine rescuers. Not just the students. Who else do you train?
BOB: We train adults; we train miners from coalmines here in the west. We train personnel and fire departments.
TUCKMAN: This smoke is set up for the students to give you an idea of what rescuers go through when they're trying to rescue. You can't see anything. How are you supposed to find people trapped in a mine?
BOB: Well the first thing we do is we try to obtain a map of the mine so you have a general idea. Secondly you can follow the rail and see it through the smoke a little bit. You can take a walk along that, grab that compressed airline or water line and that also gives you some guidance as to where you're going in the mine. And then if you really have to, you can get down on the floor and crawl.
TUCKMAN: How do you communicate? Radios don't work down here. That is a big issue in this situation, communication.
BOB: Yes, most of the time it's hand signals and voice communication. Of course that's hampered by the fact that you're wearing protective devices, so communication is a problem. It always is a problem.
TUCKMAN: What are SBA's?
BOB: Self-contained breathing apparatus with oxygen in it.
TUCKMAN: You're talking about going to another room if you're a miner to get away from the gasses. You get an idea how heavy this door is. This is where miners should go if something happens down here.
BOB: This could be used for a refuge chamber, yes.
TUCKMAN: You've set up an obstacle course to simulate for rescuers, your students, what it's like to rescue. It is dark in here, it is smoky in here. You see this tunnel, it is very narrow and you're wearing this bulky gear. It took a long time to go through because you can barely fit.
BOB: It gives you an idea when people are trapped what they go through.
ANNOUNCER: Sago Mine officials could only hope the trapped miners had found their own safe location to protect themselves from deadly gasses. By Tuesday afternoon, rescue workers were about 1,500 feet from where the miners were trapped. They figured it would take another five hours to reach them. But in this race against time, the prospects of recovery were getting bleak.
MACHIN: I'm still very optimistic and very hopeful and still praying for that miracle. But our odds are pretty much against us, as you know. It's an uphill fight and people still have a lot of faith and I do, too.
ANNOUNCER: Close to midnight after 41 grueling hours of searching and waiting, those prayers seemed to have been answered.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Then sings my soul my savior god to me.
ANDERSON COOPER, HOST: With time slipping away here in West Virginia, families and rescuers prayed for a miracle. And for three short hours, it appeared their prayers had been answered.
The first clear sign of life or death at the Sago Mine came late Tuesday evening.
UNIDENTIFIED SPOKESMAN: Mine rescue crews have also located the body of a miner.
COOPER: But in that tragic news, a glimmer of hope. Indications the other 12 may have made it to safety.
JOE MANCHIN, GOVERNOR, WEST VIRGINIA: The one body that's been recovered was the one person, was left right there where the force of the blast came. And the 12, the tram was in perfect condition, it was on the tracks. There's no disturbance. There's no buckets. There's no anything. They would have gotten off and walked and taken everything with them.
COOPER: Soon after, emergency dispatchers received calls indicating the 12 miners were alive.
CALLER: Okay, you might as well just stand still right where you're at, Gary. They did find them and they're all okay, I guess. So I think we might be transporting them, I'm not exactly sure, but we're stuck right here.
DISPATCHER: And what am I telling them?
CALLER: Just tell them that they located 12 and they're bringing them out.
DISPATCHER: And they're all alive?
CALLER: As far as they know, so far.
COOPER: Forty-one hours after the explosion that glimmer of hope became real. The miners' families heard the bells that signaled the miracle they so desperately wanted.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my God. I was trying to lay down and get some sleep and my daughter comes knocking on the van, "Mom, they found Uncle Marshall (ph) and he's alive."
UNIDENTIFIED CNN REPORTER: And when you first heard the news...
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I was barefooted. I ran to the -- barefooted to the church.
REPORTER: What will you say to Marshall, your brother-in-law, when you see him?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I don't know. I love him and I missed him. And I'm so glad he's alive.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Thank you, God.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Give him praise. Give him praise.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's a miracle around the world, anywhere. By golly, it's a miracle. The world was waiting for us to see this happen.
COOPER: Waiting for that same miracle that happened just three short years ago in another small mining town.
The summer of 2002 in Somerset, Pennsylvania. Nine coal miners trapped in a flooded mine. MARK POPERNACK, PENNSYLVANIA MINE SURVIVOR: We knew we were trapped the whole time. We couldn't get out. And when the water came right up to us where we were at, our hopes of surviving through that were pretty slim.
HARRY "BLAINE" MAYHUGH, PENNSYLVANIA MINE SURVIVOR: We pretty much calculated that we had an hour left. I wrote letters to my wife and kids just telling them that I loved them and that, you know, life goes on and that I would always love them. And I asked one of the fellow miners if I would still go to heaven being that I wasn't baptized.
COOPER: While these miners faced death, local pastor, Charles Olson, waited with their families for word, one way or the other.
CHARLES OLSON (ph), PASTOR: It was a roller coaster ride. One minute you're high and the next minute you're low.
COOPER: After 77 terrible hours, the incredible happened.
UNIDENTIFIED SPOKESMAN: All nine are alive and we believe that all nine are in pretty good shape. And the families now know that.
OLSON: They said they were about to bring the miners up. The families were asked whether they wanted to see it. And if the families wanted to see it, they said, "Now if you do that, the whole world's going to see it. But if you don't want to see it, then the whole world won't see it." So the families collectively -- we took a vote there and the families all agreed that they wanted to be able to watch it on television.
BETTY NGUYEN, CNN ANCHOR: We have just heard that the first of the surviving nine miners has just been pulled out and pulled to safety.
COOPER: It was a miracle for this Pennsylvania mining town. And in Upshur County, West Virginia, another miracle seemed to be happening.
Back at the Sago Baptist Church, the miners' families celebrated and anxiously waited for their rescued loved ones.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They said if they found them alive they would ring the church bell, and they did.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The church bell has rung.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: They're alive and they're coming out right now and they're going to come across that bridge right there in about 15 minutes.
COOPER: Families and a nation rejoiced. There are signs up saying, "Pray for the miners, pray for their families." And those prayers certainly seemed to have been answered tonight. A miracle.
Based on the families' account and the governor's statement, newscasts and headlines proclaimed the ordeal was over.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE CNN ANCHOR: A miracle in the mine.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE CNN CORRESPONDENT: So many people so happy here tonight.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE CNN CORRESPONDENT: This is an incredible turn of events.
OLSON: I was watching the news whenever I heard about the 12 miners were found alive. And it concerned me a little bit because nobody official was saying anything. And it was just being spread by word of mouth. And I said to my wife, "I don't like this."
COOPER: Then after three hours of joyous celebration.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's only one made it out alive.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: And I think they said the other 11 couldn't be saved. I don't know if that's for sure that they're perished or not, but I do know only one is...
COOPER: This is unbelievable.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's totally -- it's the worst thing that I've ever heard of.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Oh, my God. Oh, my God.
COOPER: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Charlie, Charlie, we've got to come back, come back to us.
Wait, wait. Come here. What's happening?
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: There's only one -- only one made it out alive. There's only one person alive and he's already in route to the hospital.
COOPER: In short hours, jubilation replaced by grief and anger. Family members were told the tragic news that 12 of the 13 miners would not be coming home.
BEN HATFIELD, CEO, INTERNATIONAL COAL GROUP: The initial report from the rescue team to the command center indicated multiple survivors. But that information proved to be a miscommunication. The only confirmed survivors is Randall L. McCloy, Jr., who has now been rushed to a local hospital in serious condition.
The 11 remaining miners in the barricade structure were determined by the medical technicians on the rescue team to have already deceased. Our hearts and prayers go out to each of the 13 families. We are incredibly saddened by the horrific loss of these fathers, sons, husbands and brothers. This is certainly not the outcome that we had hoped for and prayed for. COOPER: Inside a nearby church, where friends and family had gathered and prayed, a scene of chaos and confusion.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: You people don't know how to run a mine.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Back up across the line gentlemen.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It's not right. No, they need to know what's going on.
UNIDENTIFIED OFFICER: Hey, come on.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Miscommunications is what they're blaming it on.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everybody is stunned right now. Everybody is stunned and sick to their stomach. We feel like we've been lied to.
COOPER: The grim reality sent Peggy Cone into shock. She needed treatment over night at the hospital.
PEGGY CONE: I just want to see him. I just want to see (ph). I just want to see him and then going from, "Oh, my God, I'm going to have to identify my dad's body."
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE CNN CORRESPONDENT: There was a lot of time that passed between believing they were alive and then learning that they weren't. What do you think about that?
CONE: Angry. I think that, you know, they could have handled it better. They could have just told us they found them and, I think, that would have pacified the people enough to let them go check to see if they were allowed instead of saying, "We found them. They're alive. They're coming to you." Then, I'm waiting on the church steps thinking my dad's being brought to me. Then see everybody going back into the church and then telling me my dad's dead. You know, I just wanted the truth. And I wanted the truth up front.
COOPER: Just a few short hours ago, the community had stood together in song and prayer. News of the tragic twist had now shaken their faith.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're Christian people ourselves. We have got -- some of us is right down to saying that we don't even know if there is a Lord anymore. We had a miracle and it was taken away from us.
COOPER: But there would be one small miracle at the Sago Mine, the rescue of 26-year-old Randall McCloy, Jr. He was found moaning, struggling to breath, but alive.
ER doctor, Robert Blake, was the first medical responder to treat McCloy. He talked with CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta about McCloys' condition when he reached him inside the mine.
ROBERT BLAKE, PHYSICIAN, ST. JOSEPH'S HOSPITAL: He was having difficulty breathing. He was not awake. He had no movement. And he was working to breathe. They -- he also had a pulse. And I could see that his lungs were expanding.
COOPER: Dr. Blake says Randy McCloy's condition was very grave and time was critical.
BLAKE: He was close. He was very close. The oxygen made a huge difference with him.
SANJAY GUPTA, CNN MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Do you think he would have survived without it?
BLAKE: It would not have been long. It would not have been long.
GUPTA: So he was real close to dying?
BLAKE: Oh, absolutely. I made a quick decision that we should rush this gentleman out and -- because I had more healthcare workers on the outside. At that time, I was understanding that there were 11 others still down there alive. So we cleared the way and that bus went on out and we continued on in.
COOPER: Dr. Blake traveled deeper into the mine in search of more survivors. About a mile in, he meet two more man buses, the vehicles that transport the miners from the entrance down into the depths of the mine.
BLAKE: I jumped out because I assumed, in my mind, that if people were coming out, there would be more individuals on those buses. And as I made my way through, I ran to the first bus and there was no one on it, except rescue workers.
And I started my way back towards the second bus and figured that they were on it. And one of the rescue workers, who was right behind me, asked, "Where are the other guys?" And he said, "Who?" And he said, "The survivors." And he goes, "There are none except the one we just sent out." And he said, "What do you mean?" And he said, "The rest have perished." And that's when we become -- we had the realization that he was the only one.
COOPER: In a community where working thousands of feet beneath the earth is a way of life and the best hope of making a decent paycheck, there are now lots of unanswered questions. How could the life or death story of the miners get so horribly confused?
CNN's Drew Griffin spoke to an administrator for the United Mine Workers of America, who was in the staging area throughout the ordeal.
Dennis O'Dell says the communication got garbled as it was relayed from one teach of rescue workers to another.
DENNIS O'DELL, ADMINISTRATOR, UNITED MINE WORKERS OF AMERICA: I can tell you that I talked to the team members, some of the team members that found the bodies, and I can tell you that what they said was that they found the bodies and one was alive. I can tell you I talked to some of the members who were at the fresh air base and what they said was the information they heard was we found all the bodies, all are alive. Found all the bodies, one alive; found all the bodies, 12 alive.
COOPER: Mine company president, Ben Hatfield, didn't know either. But he tried to provide some answers. At a press conference, he said the mistaken report was heard over a speaker in the command center, which was full of officials, workers and volunteers, all desperate for any bit of good news.
The false information quickly spread by cell phone to relatives inside the church.
GENE KITTS, SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT, INTERNATIONAL COAL GROUP: Management went to everyone, every office, every place and said, "This is something that we cannot release until we are certain of facts, so don't communicate anything outside until it's certainly confirmed." But that obviously didn't happen.
O'DELL: Well, for verification purposes, when it comes to life and death instances, no information, regardless of good, bad or indifferent should ever leave that command center before it's verified by actually seeing individuals who are rescued or actually talking to those individuals that were doing the mine rescue.
DREW GRIFFIN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: And that is standard procedure?
COOPER: Dennis O'Dell says no one should have ever had to endure that kind of emotional roller coaster.
O'DELL: It was going from the very highest of levels that anybody could be on to just a gut wrenching sickness in your stomach that...
GRIFFIN: But, Dennis, that very high level to the gut wrenching should have stayed in that building?
O'DELL: Exactly. And that's where the failure occurred.
COOPER: Letting the families rejoice for nearly three hours was a mistake, Ben Hatfield admits. But he apologized and reminded the families that it wasn't a malicious act, just a mistake. One that he's replayed over in his head several times.
BEN HATFIELD, PRESIDENT, SEGO MINE COMPANY: What would have I done differently? I would have personally gone to the church when we got the conflicting information.
COOPER: While it will most likely take months before the cause of the explosion that killed the miners is determined, a picture is emerging of what their final hours were like.
Martin Towler, Jr, (ph) a husband, father and life-long veteran of the mines, wanted his family to know that he did not suffer. He wrote, "Tell all I'll see them on the other side. I love you," he wrote. "It wasn't bad, just went to sleep."
COOPER: With the ringing of a bell, they return to the Sego Baptist Church. Grieving family members, friends and fellow coal miners.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I just pray that God will be with them, be with their family. Give them the strength and the courage to do his will.
COOPER: They raised candles, sang hymns, cried, prayed...
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Praise God.
COOPER: ... and mourned the loss of 12 doomed miners.
The agony of West Virginia was shared throughout the nation's mining communities. No more so than in Brookwood, Alabama.
The disaster at the Sago Mine brings back painful memories in Brookwood. Memories of a hauntingly similar tragedy that struck her four years ago.
JOHN WATHEN, BROOKWOOD RESIDENT: It was so similar. Everything, the scenarios were almost identical. The reality was just overwhelming, totally overwhelming.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE BROOKWOOD RESIDENT: I just know that my brother's still trapped in there. I'm sorry.
COOPER: In 2001, 13 men were killed when a pair of explosions ripped through the number 5 mine in this small town outside of Birmingham.
RICK ROSE, MINE SURVIVOR: Unless we forget, the cross, the American flag draped over it. I can't forget that day.
COOPER: Rick Rose was in the mine that terrible day and barely got out alive.
ROSE: About all those folks in West Virginia, my heart aches for them. My prayers go out to them. Like I said, it's been going on five -- starting on five years here. I'm not able to deal with it and I didn't loose a husband or a brother or an uncle or cousin or nephew. I just lost 13 friends.
COOPER: Wanda Blevins and her son, David, also know about suffering. She lost a husband. He lost a father in the Brookwood tragedy.
DAVID BLEVINS: I still have nightmares going to the top of that hill, seeing the helicopters and the ambulances and the blue lights. It's something you'll never, ever get out of your mind. COOPER: Despite her enormous loss, Wanda Blevins has these words of comfort for those struggling in West Virginia.
WANDA BLEVINS: I would tell them to trust in God, stand strong, and be West Virginians, be proud. Because I'm going to tell you, coal miners are truly a special breed of people, and that we have to be absolutely ashamed of nothing. That their husbands are truly heroes.
COOPER: Brookwood, Alabama, Somerset, Pennsylvania and, now, Tallmansville, West Virginia.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We ask that you be with the families, ask that you touch their hearts and let them know that we're thinking about them.
COOPER: Three major mining incidents in less than five years, and yet, when the media trucks and camera crews are gone from this latest disaster, the miners will return, despite the dangers. Like most, they have families and coal is in their blood.
STEVE MILLIGAN, EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT OFFICE, UPSHUR COUNTY, WEST VIRGINIA: I have friends who have children who want to go work in the mines. Will this incident change their opinion? It may. But these are three, fourth generation miners. You know, their father worked the mines, their brother worked the mines. They work in the mines. It's a good job. It's good money. And it's good for the economy.
COOPER: Almost everyone in this small community is connected somehow, through their faith, their families, their strength, and now though their grief. But they're also connected by this, coal, and the dangers and risks of mines, like this one in Tallmansville, West Virginia, which are not going away anytime soon.
I'm Anderson Cooper. Thanks for joining us.
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