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(photo credit: AP)
The families of 12 trapped US coal miners were told Wednesday that the men they had been told had survived had in fact all died except for one critically-injured survivor.
The devastating news came more than three hours after state Governor Joe Manchin said he had been told 12 of the miners survived the disaster.
Rescue crews found the first victim earlier Tuesday evening, before the bodies of 11 others were discovered.
"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 mining officials as 27-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.
"It's sorrow beyond belief," International Coal Group Chief Executive Officer Ben Hatfield said during a news conference.
Thirteen miners had been trapped 260 feet (80 meters) below the surface of the Sago Mine, about 100 miles (62 miles) northeast of Charleston. since an explosion early Monday. The mine is located As rescue workers tried to get to the men, families waited at the Sago Baptist Church during an emotional two-day vigil.
Late Tuesday night, family members streamed from the church where they had kept vigil, shouting "Praise the Lord!" Bells at the church rang out as family members ran out of the church, yelling "They're alive!"
Hatfield told the families gathered at church that "there had been a lack of communication, that what we were told was wrong and that only one survived," said John Groves, whose brother Jerry Groves was one of the trapped miners.
"There was no apology. There was no nothing. It was immediately out the door," said Nick Helms, son of miner Terry Helms.
Chaos broke out in the church and a fight started. About a dozen state troopers and a SWAT team were positioned along the road near the church because police were concerned about violence. A Red Cross volunteer, Tamila Swiger, told CNN people were breaking down and suffering panic attacks.
The false news about survivors spread quickly after people overheard cell phone calls, Hatfield said. In reality, rescuers had only confirmed finding 12 miners and were checking their vital signs. But what began to leak out to anxious family members was that 12 miners had been discovered alive.
"That information spread like wildfire, because it had come from the command center," he said.
The explosion was the state's deadliest mining accident since November 1968, when 78 men _ including Manchin's uncle _ died in an explosion at a mine in Marion County, an hour's drive north of Tallmansville. Nineteen bodies remain entombed in the mountain. It was that disaster that prompted Congress to pass the Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969.
On Wednesday the 12 miners were found together behind a barrier they had constructed to block carbon monoxide gas. They were found near where the company had drilled an air hole early Tuesday in an attempt to contact the men.
The miners had stretched a piece of fabric across an area about 20 feet wide to block out the gas, Hatfield said. The fabric is designed for miners to use as a barrier. Each miner had carried a breathing apparatus and had been able to use it, according to mining officials.
The hole was also used to check air quality in the mine, which revealed high concentrations of carbon monoxide. The odorless, colorless gas can be lethal at high doses. At lower levels, it can cause headaches, dizziness, disorientation, nausea, fatigue and brain damage.
"I think we can confirm with certainty the miners survived for a certain amount of time, but we have no way of knowing exactly how long," Hatfield said.
Federal officials pledged a full investigation into what happened.
"Our hearts and prayers are with the families, friends and loved ones of the 12 miners who perished in this tragedy and our hopes and prayers are with the one miner who survived," Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao said in a statement.
She said the Mine Safety and Health Administration is launching a full investigation to "determine the cause of this tragedy and will take the necessary steps to ensure that this never happens again."