Sago Mine Bosses in the Dock

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Ben Hatfield, CEO of International Coal Group, at a press conference yesterday

As mourners organized a candlelight vigil for the 12 coal miners who died following Monday's underground explosion, leaders of the company that owns the troubled mine held a press conference and described the mishaps that resulted in the false report of the mens' survival. Yet while company officials spent an hour and a half explaining what went wrong—and apologizing for the miscommunications—they wouldn't answer a question at the heart of the tragedy: why did the number of safety violations at the mine nearly triple since their firm, International Coal Group (ICG), bought the Sago mine and reopened it in 2004?

The initial communications breakdown appeared to occur when a rescue team found the trapped miners at around 11:45 p.m., Tuesday, and informed workers at a clean-air station of their discovery. What they said remains unknown but they were using a scratchy radio connection and speaking through bulky oxygen masks, which may have resulted in a misunderstanding. The message from the clean-air station to a command center on the surface was loud and clear, however: "12 are alive." The announcement sparked a celebration, and Ben Hatfield, CEO of ICG, gave a bear hug to West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin. "We all felt an incredible joy," Hatfield said.

A quick volley of cell phone calls sent the news to the Sago Baptist Church, where friends and family members had gathered. Hundreds of people then leapt to their feet and surged out the front door.

Yet just 30 minutes later, the rescue team arrived at the clean-air station and told company leaders that their original report was wrong. Hatfield said he asked state troopers to inform clergy to tell people inside Sago Church that there were now conflicting reports—yet, the news that the miracle had become a nightmare didn't reach family members for another three hours. "If I had to do it over again," Hatfield said, "I would have gone to the church and told them we had conflicting information."

To outraged family members, the delay was a tinderspark that ignited a fury against the company. "I was disgusted," said Christine Yocum, whose cousin David Lewis died underground. "I understand you can't get perfect reception under a mountain. But when they learned there was a problem, they should have announced it immediately."

Family members of the dead workers also want answers about the mine's poor safety record. In 2004 there were 68 safety violations at the mine. Last year, there were 208 violations, including 96 considered "significant" by the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Since ICG bought Sago and reopened it in 2004, there have been 276 violations, including four citations for allowing combustible coal dust and gases to accumulate and 22 for failing to implement a proper ventilation plan. Portions of the mine were shut down 18 times last year because of safety problems, according to Federal mine officials, who plan to investigate the accident.