The White House promised a full investigation of the West Virginia coal mine disaster that killed 12 people.
Congressional Democrats called for hearings to look into both the safety record of the mining company and the Bush administration’s policies on mine safety.
“We send our prayers and heartfelt condolences to the loved ones whose hearts are broken,” President Bush said Wednesday. “We ask that the good Lord comfort them in their time of need.”
He praised West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin “for showing such compassion” during the crisis and thanked rescuers “who risked their lives to save those miners for showing such courage.”
“May God bless the good people of West Virginia,” Bush said.
Rep. George Miller of California, top Democrat on the Education and the Workforce Committee, and Rep. Major Owens, a New York Democrat, on Wednesday wrote the chairman of the committee, Republican Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, urging him to immediately begin hearings.
Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy, ranking Democrat on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, similarly requested hearings from panel chairman Mike Enzi, a Wyoming Republican.
“The fact that the Sago Mine had a long history of serious safety violations demands that Congress learn why more wasn’t done to keep these workers safe,” Miller said.
His letter to Boehner cited the jump in citations issued by the Mine Safety and Health Administration against the Sago Mine and the ineffectiveness of fines that amounted to a few thousand dollars. He said the committee should also look into whether the appointment of officials with close ties to the mining industry to the MSHA had resulted in a rollback in safety regulations.
Boehner, in response, said he was pleased the MSHA has moved quickly to investigate the tragedy. “Following a full accounting of the facts, the committee will examine the results of the investigation and determine what appropriate steps may be necessary to ensure a similar tragedy never happens again,” he said.
Bush’s spokesman defended the administration’s record on mine safety rules, saying increased safety has been a priority.
“In fact this administration proposed a fourfold increase in fines and penalties for violations of the Mine Safety and Health Administration rules,” press secretary Scott McClellan said.
Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao said the Mine Safety and Health Administration was beginning an investigation to “determine the cause of this tragedy and will take the necessary steps to ensure that this never happens again.”
Acting Assistant Secretary David Dye, who heads the mine safety agency, said the investigation will “evaluate all aspects of the accident and response, including compliance with all federal health and safety standards, and how emergency information was relayed about the trapped miners’ conditions.”
The emotional impact of the loss on the families of the lost miners was intensified when they were told shortly before midnight Tuesday that most trapped miners had been found alive, only to learn three hours later that 12 were dead.