State and company officials struggled on Wednesday to explain how bad information had given false hope that 12 trapped men had survived a blast in this Appalachian coal mining town, even though only one miner had made rescued.
Ben Hatfield, president of International Coal Group Inc, owner of the Sago mine, said the company had waited until it could determine which miners were dead or alive before passing word along, and that he regretted the way in which events unfolded.
"Communication problems only added to the tragedy," he told a news conference.
Friends and family who had kept vigil for 42 hours first heard through cell phone calls late on Tuesday that 12 miners trapped since Monday's blast had been rescued, but their jubilation turned to despair as they learned three hours later only one man had lived.
That man, Randal McCloy, 27, was conscious and in critical but stable condition despite being exposed to carbon monoxide released by the explosion, doctors said.
McCloy's collapsed lung had re-expanded and he had communicated with his wife through facial expressions and squeezing hands, according to Dr. Lawrence Roberts of West Virginia University Hospital.
On Wednesday night, a short distance from where their husbands, sons, brothers and fathers died, grieving relatives and friends gathered at the Sago Baptist Church and tearfully remembered the dead.
The vigil, which lasted about an hour, included the singing of "Amazing Grace" and the ringing of the church bell, which pealed Tuesday night as it was erroneously reported that the men were found alive. Reporters were asked to stay away.
Family members in this close-knit West Virginia mining town expressed outrage at the way the news of the dozen deaths was conveyed. West Virginia Governor Joe Machin, who was cited as a source of the false report of 12 survivors, said he had been caught up in the celebration.
"I feel that we were lied to all along," said Anne Meredith, whose father died, adding that she planned to sue the ICG.
Rescuers who descended into the mine had searched tunnels for hours before finding the trapped miners, who abandoned their transport car and tried to escape the gases. The rescuers "found the miners by being drawn to the sound of moans," Hatfield said.
Some rescuers, thinking the men were alive, passed that false information via cell phone to others. Though officials had been told not to pass on information unless it had been verified, those reports set off a celebration that spread to families at the church.
The moans turned out to be from McCloy alone.
Forty-five minutes later, a second message was sent to the rescue center contradicting the earlier report, saying there was only one survivor, Hatfield said.
"The immediate reaction in the command center was that report of one survivor might be erroneous," he said. "We clung to the hope that the 11 others might be in a comatose state."
Relatives celebrated for nearly three hours before being informed there was only one survivor.
"It hit people's hearts so hard ... One guy said 'What in the hell has God done for us,' but just a few minutes before that we was praising God, because they believed that they (were) alive," John Casto, a friend of the miners, said on CNN.
Several newspapers that went to press before the truth emerged ran front-page headlines Wednesday such as "Miracle in the Mine." "Alive! Miners beat odds" was USA Today's headline with a picture of two smiling family members.
The 11 deaths brought to 12 the total number killed by the blast. One miner had been discovered dead late on Tuesday.