The news devastated a community that hours earlier had heard that the miners had been found alive and were being rescued from some 260 feet below the surface.
Just before midnight, rumors began to rapidly circulate through the small town of Tallmansville, W.Va., that 12 survivors had been located. The governor, Joe Manchin, announced the news, church bells rang and families embraced one another.
“All of a sudden we heard the families in a euphoric state, and all the shouting and screaming and joyfulness, and I asked my detachments, I said, ‘Do you know what’s happening?’ Because we were wired in and we didn’t know,” Manchin said.
Then some three hours later, mine officials, blaming a “miscommunication”, announced that news overheard in cell phone calls and spread by news media and politicians was incorrect.
“About the confusion, I can’t tell you of anything more heart-wrenching than I’ve ever gone through in my life. Nothing,” Manchin said.
The sole survivor of the disaster, identified by officials as 26-year-old Randal McCloy, was hospitalized in critical condition early Wednesday, a doctor said. When he arrived, he was unconscious but moaning, the hospital said.
Chaos reportedly broke out in the church and a fight started. Some dozen state troopers and a SWAT team were positioned along the road near the church because police were concerned about violence.
Federal Department of Labor officials announced an investigation would explore “how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners’ conditions.”
Mine officials at the Sago Mine said they were aware within 20 minutes that initial reports on the number of survivors were wrong, but waited to talk with family members as they struggled to determine the number of victims.
The prospects that the miners would still be alive appeared bleak throughout Tuesday after holes bored into the mine shaft revealed carbon monoxide levels three times higher than people could withstand. Carbon monoxide, a byproduct of combustion, can be lethal.
According to rescue officials that the 12 miners had been found together behind a makeshift barricade erected to protect them from the carbon monoxide. A 13th miner had been located earlier in the night also dead.