House Speaker Bob Kiss
Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin
Delegate Mike Caputo
Delegate Bill Hamilton
Sen. Shirley Love
Delegate Eustace Frederick
Sen. Jeff Kessler
Sen. Don Caruth
CHARLESTON -- A special state legislative committee is joining the state-federal Sago Mine disaster investigation.
House Speaker Bob Kiss and Senate President Earl Ray Tomblin have appointed six members to the bipartisan committee, which will work under the guidance of Adviser Davitt McAteer.
"Basically, the Legislature wants to find out what went wrong at Sago and what we as a lawmaking body should do to minimize the chances of such a tragedy happening again," Kiss, D-Raleigh, said.
Tomblin noted that the investigation is strengthened by the addition of legislators, who are directly answerable to the public.
"Not only do the committee members bring diverse backgrounds and professional experience to the inquiry, but they also will convey the concerns of their constituents," Tomblin, D-Logan, said.
The committee will include Delegates Mike Caputo, D-Marion, Eustace Frederick, D-Mercer, and Bill Hamilton, R-Upshur, and Senators Jeff Kessler, D-Marshall, Shirley Love, D-Fayette, and Don Caruth, R-Mercer.
Caputo brings to the investigative committee 20 years of mining experience in both underground and preparation plant work. Caputo, who began his mining career at age 19, has been a representative of the United Mine Workers of America since 1996. During the decade he has served in the House, Delegate Caputo worked on a variety of committees, including the Judiciary Committee, on which he currently serves.
"My sole interest is to get to the bottom of what caused this horrible tragedy, and to determine whether there is something this Legislature can do to prevent an accident like this from happening again," Caputo said. "I am pleased that a committee of the Legislature will be at the table during this investigation, and I am honored to serve."
Drawing from the experiences of his father and grandfather in the coal mines, Frederick graduated with a degree in mining engineering from Virginia Tech and has worked in the mining industry for close to 40 years. Having specialized in numerous areas, including the development of methodologies and equipment for safer, more efficient mining and degasification of mines, he also has been a consulting mining engineer during his 13 years of retirement.
"I've been at this a long time, and if I can offer something from my background that can help prevent someone from getting hurt or killed, it will be worth it," Frederick said. "We have to go at this with the belief that such accidents can be prevented."
Like so many West Virginians, Hamilton is also a descendent of a coal miner – his father was an underground miner for many years prior to World War II– and he suffered the loss of his uncle to a surface mining accident in 1963.
An independent insurer and Buckhannon native, Hamilton represents Upshur County, where the Sago tragedy took place, and is an active member of that community.
"I can't begin to express the loss my friends and constituents are experiencing," Hamilton said. "As their representative, I have grieved along with each family member and loved one."
Hamilton also lost a very close friend at Sago.
"While out of respect for my friend and his family, I have chosen not to publicly discuss my personal loss, I carry that experience into the investigation," he said.
"I want this to be a very thorough examination. Everybody wants answers, and I think no stone should be left unturned."
Hamilton plans to work closely with Delegate Mary Poling, D-Barbour, who is in constant touch with loved ones of the victims from that county and the concerned citizens of her district.
Kessler chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, which deals with a vast majority of state safety policies and regulations.
"This was a horrible tragedy and we're going to do everything in our power to ensure that the policies of the state foster, encourage and demand that safety is of the utmost importance in mining operations," Kessler said.
Love, a former radio broadcaster, is a lifelong resident of southern West Virginia. In 1966, he reported on the Siltex mining accident in Mount Hope, where seven miners perished "under similar circumstances."
"Being both the son of a coal miner and a former news person who has witnessed such a tragedy, I have some understanding of how this investigation should unfold," he said.
As a private attorney, a significant portion of Caruth's practice has involved coal mining accidents, some which have resulted in fatalities, and he has experience with the work of the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration, as well as state mining regulations.
"This is a very serious matter – not only to investigate what led up to this mine disaster and what mistakes were made but also to address mine safety practices and mine safety and health regulations to help prevent, and be better prepared for, problems that might arise in the future," he said.