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Courtney Gilles

Sago Mine Disaster-Handling Crisis

Tragedy struck in Tallsmanville, West Virginia on January 2, 2006 when a

portion of the Sago coal mine exploded, trapping 13 workers more than two miles into

the mine, 280 feet below the ground. It was one of the worst mining accidents to occur in

West Virginia since 1968. The explosion was said to have occurred at approximately

6:30 am, the first shift after the New Year holiday (Metcalfe, 2006). There were two carts

going into the mine when the explosion occurred; 14 workers in the first cart had been

lucky enough to escape the initial explosion (Schimmoeller, 2008). These 14 workers,

along with the mine superintendant, went down to 9,000 feet to try to rescue their

coworkers until they reached a point where carbon monoxide levels were too high

(Metcalfe, 2006).

The rescue effort of these miners was anything but immediate. The investigative

reporter for the Charleston Gazette in West Virginia later told officials that emergency

mine crews were not called until 8:04 am, nearly 90 minutes after the blast (Metcalfe,

2006). The Sago Mine officials then notified the Federal Mine Safety and Health

Administration (MSHA) at 8:30am, but they did not show up until 10:30am. The

International Coal Group (ICG), the owners of the Sago Mine, were notified a short time

after 8:30am, still nearly two hours after the blast (Schimmoeller, 2008). Because of the

shockingly high carbon monoxide levels, no rescue effort began until 12 hours later.

Rescue miners had to proceed slowly, checking the air levels every 500 feet. By 12:40

pm on January 3rd, the rescue crews had reached 10,200 feet into the mine. The levels of

carbon monoxide was determined to be more than three times of what a human could

survive, and officials told others that the outlook was very grim (Metcalfe, 2006). At

about 3:00 am on January 4th, it was determined that 12 out of the 13 miners had died.

The only survivor was Randal McCloy Jr., who was listed in critical condition. On

January 5th, the notes that the deceased miners had written to their loved ones when

trapped were released exclusively to the families (Schimmoeller, 2008). In the days and
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years to follow, dozens of hearings and legislations would soon form in the midst of

assuring the public that the Sago Mine was safe and secure.

The Sago Mine disaster will always be remembered because of its nearly two day

nonstop live coverage of the event. Every major news media outlet was providing 24

hour coverage of the events unfolding at Sago mine. The frustrating ordeal of the disaster

was inaccurate information given by all forms of the media. At approximately 11:41 a.m.

on January 2, during CNN Live Today, anchor Daryn Kagan, announced, "This just in,

news out of West Virginia, we have word of an underground explosion at a coal mine

there"(Kagan, 2006). Major media outlets such as CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC all

were live on the scene on the night of January 3rd and the early morning of January 4th.

Around 11:30 pm on January 3rd, rumor spread that 12 out of the 13 miners were alive.

Twenty minutes later at 11:50pm, the Associated Press confirmed and reported the

rumors as true to the public. Live news coverage was at Sago Baptist Church, the place

where family members heard about the incredible news. Minutes after the joyous news,

bells rang, townspeople sang, and all cheered for what they thought was a miracle (Dao,


Emotions were turned upside down at approximately 2:45am, when the MSHA

released the truth that that only one miner had survived. “There's only one," Lynette

Roby, a Tallmansville resident, told Anderson Cooper Live on CNN the morning of

January 4 (McLaughlin, 2006). The International Coal Group (ICG), with CEO Ben

Hatfield as the spokesman, immediately set up a live press conference to explain to their

key publics (family, friends, and co-workers of the men involved, government officials,

and the media) that messages between the rescue workers and the mine command center

had been flawed (Schimmoeller, 2008). USA Today ran a headline in their East Coast

edition that read "'Alive!' Miners beat odds". Many journalists quickly accepted the

developing rumor, wanting to finish their story by 3:00am to place it in the next

morning’s newspaper. The Chicago tribune produced 373,000 false copies, while USA
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today ran more than 45 percent of their 2.2 million copies exclaiming the miracle of the

miners (Memmott, 2006). Some news media outlets admitted their mistakes, such as

NBC News anchor, Brian Williams, who wrote in his blog: "The coverage was joyous,

breathless, and few cautions were ever voiced... what an awful night for the news media”

(Williams, 2006). Other media outlets were less inclined to admit their fault. Melanie

Sill, a reporter for Raliegh,NC wrote, ``There's a difference between journalistic failure

and getting bad information -- which I call an honest mistake” (Jarvik, 2006). CNN

president Jonathan Klein never once issued any apologies, stating that the source of that

the men were alive was "pretty solid" and adding: "This situation points to the strength of

TV news coverage because we were able to correct as better information developed”

(Eichel, 2006).

When the accurate information had made headway, the criticism of MSHA was

at center stage. The media was responsible for grossly over exaggerating claims. The

criticism went as far as to blame the Bush Administration. The New York Times

compared the safety issues of the mine to "an industry with pervasive political clout and

patronage inroads in government regulatory agencies.” The article also summed up that

both political parties had always defended the coal mining industry and had no problem

being lax on regulations. Political parties had no problem ignoring regulations because of

the massive profits that mines likes Sago were turning in (Lilly, 2006). Media all around

also came back with asking the impossible “what ifs” and “they would still be alive today

if…” only creating public anger at the ICG, MSHA, and the Bush Administration. Blame

was easily thrown around, and it was later discovered that lightning was responsible for

causing the explosion (MSHA blames sago explosion on lightning, 2007).

The MSHA and the ICG took some of the necessary steps in handling the crisis.

On January 2nd through January 5th, Ben Hatfield, the CEO of the International Coal

Group, set up press releases and press conferences to update the public and their families

on the developing tragedy. Hatfield seemed to be the right spokesperson for the job; he

was credible, on the scene, and calm during the crisis. The International Coal Group
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never once confirmed that there were 12 miners alive, holding back all information until

there was physical evidence. The Governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, was also

involved in press conferences; in fact it was Manchin who took the rumor that miners

were alive and made the public believe that it was indeed a joyous day for West Virginia

(Lordan 2006). On January 5th, the MSHA offered their deepest sympathies to all the

worker’s families. They also sent to the public a question and answer page on their

website that disputed the media’s criticisms about the numerous violations and relaxed

safety issues. In the website they stated, “Our mission always has been and always will

be to ensure that miners return home safe and healthy to loved ones at the end of their

shifts (Sago mine information previous postings, 2006). The MSHA used rectifying

behaviors of corrective action, immediately entering an agreement with the U.S Army

Corps Engineers to digitally reconstruct the disaster. MSHA quote, “All the information

from the investigation will be carefully scrutinized and analyzed and a thorough report

will be prepared and made available to the public. (Dye, 2006) The International Coal

Group established the Sago Mine Fund for the families of the victims in the tragedy.

They put two million dollars into the fund and provided an opportunity for the public to

provide donations as well. (Schimmoeller, 2008). On January 23, 2006, Governor Joe

Manchin signed legislation that created an entirely new emergency response system and

required coal companies to provide extra supplies such as oxygen tanks, communication

equipment, and tracking devices. This bill also introduced quarterly emergency

evacuation drills and forced mine companies to contact MSHA of an accident within 15

minutes, rather than the nearly 90 minutes it took for them to call (West Virginia

legislature, 2006). In March 2007, the International Coal Group stopped mining from the

Sago Mine in West Virginia. ICG spokesperson Ira Gamm cited the move as a "business

decision" unrelated to the January 2006 accident. Gamm blamed weak coal process and

unproductive mining (Sago mine closes, 2007).

There were several ways in which the crisis could have been handled differently.

First of all, the MSHA and ICG should not have let Governor Manchin participate in the
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communicating of the public. Getting too many speakers involved sometimes only

confuses the public, especially when Manchin took the media’s miscommunication,

making repeated references to the public about the miracle in the mines. Another thing

that could have been done was a formal apology. Although officials offered the verbal

tactic of condolence, never once did the ICG issue a formal apology, nor did some of the

media outlets for the miscommunication. Admitting the wrong is one of the first steps in

making amends with the public. According to the article, Can Lightning Strike Twice?,

“There was no official apology directly touching on the "ethical lapse" made during the

final minutes of the rescue search at the Sago Mine” (Schimmoeller, 2008). Lastly, a

financial fund set aside for two million dollars for those afflicted by the tragedy was

promptly put into action. This tactic of ingratiation was issued in hopes to possibly calm

and pay off the victims of the crisis and prevent any backlash from those upset at the

infamous miscommunication. I believe that the ICG and MSHA could have offered a

more personal connection. They should have immediately offering grief services for

families and addressing each individual family of the deceased miner. They could have

also specifically recognized each deceased miner for their passions, life, and family to

offer that personal connection. The millions of dollars does not console anyone or clear

the mistakes. Also, ICG CEO Hatfield could have thought a little more before he spoke.

In one press conference he stated, “Welcome to the worst day of my life.” This comment

was very inappropriate when talking to the family members who were clearly having a

far worse day than Hatfield. . In conclusion, the Sago Mine tragedy will be a benchmark

for public relations officials handling crises. It is looking back at crises like these in

which we can learn from our mistakes, allowing us to properly handle an emergency


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