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Mining dangers ever-present

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Already wrung out emotionally as they awaited word of the fate of 13 men who had been trapped underground by an explosion in Tallmansville, W.V., the loved ones and friends deserved better.

The news they had longed to hear — that 12 of the men were alive — was a horrific mistake. Three hours later, wives, children, parents, siblings and others learned the horrible truth — that only one man had survived the ordeal. Understandably, their joy turned to fury.

It is unclear how the mistake occurred. Mine officials say communication may have been fumbled due to the full-face oxygen masks used by rescuers and others in the mine. Perhaps the fragment of a cell-phone conversation was misunderstood and the story spread like wildfire. According to press reports, some family members said even West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin told them that the 12 men were alive.

Perhaps worse than the mistake was the three-hour delay in correcting the misinformation. Officials knew 20 minutes after the initial reports that the information was in error. "In the process of being cautious, we allowed the jubilation to go on longer than it should have," said Ben Hatfield, chief executive of mine owner International Coal Group, which owns the mine. He offered the mine owners' sincere regrets.

There are many lessons to be learned from this incident. Obviously, delicate information needs to be handled with the utmost care because the incorrect information initially delivered to families and others compounded their grief. News organizations were at the mercy of sources, although some Monday morning quarterbacking suggests that more confirmation should have been obtained.

Frankly, the good news spread because it was the news everyone wanted to hear — that the miners survived the explosion.

Physical evidence suggests that all but one miner survived the initial blast. The survivors retreated deeper into the mine, hung up a curtain-like barrier to block toxic gases and waited to be rescued, officials said Wednesday.

Manchin has called for a thorough investigation from state and federal mine safety officials. Particularly troubling are the number of alleged mine safety violations. The Associated Press has reported that Sago Mine received 208 citations from the Mine Safety and Health Administration during 2005, up from 68 in 2004; and 144 notices of violation from state regulators, up 74 from the previous year. Mine officials say safety has improved dramatically since International Coal Group Inc. acquired the mine last March from Anker West Virginia Mining Co., which had been in bankruptcy.

If Utah's experience with mine disasters is any guide, it will be months before mine and government officials complete their investigations of the mine explosion and the aftermath.

Utahns are sadly familiar with the pain the people of Tallmansville are experiencing. As recently as 2000, two Utah miners were killed and eight others injured in an explosion at Willow Creek Mine Co., 13 miles north of Price. Prior to that, 24 miners perished in the Wilberg mine fire in 1984. Another explosion killed 172 miners in Castle Gate in 1924. In what was then the worst mine disaster in the nation, more than 200 men were killed in an explosion of the Winter Quarters No. 4 mine, known as the Scofield mine tragedy. That was more than 105 years ago.

Regulation, technology and training have significantly reduced mining deaths over the past 100 years. But some of the same hazards that dogged pick and shovel miners still exist today — explosions, cave-ins, water hazards and carbon monoxide exposure. The Sago Mine tragedy, once again, spotlighted the many dangers that lurk in coal mines, which can exact a heavy price when things go awry.