Published: Apr 06, 2010 9:41 AM EDT

MONTCOAL, W.Va. (AP) - Rescue teams planned to search again for

four workers missing in a coal mine where a massive explosion

killed 25 in the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than two

decades, though officials said Tuesday that the chances were slim

that the miners survived.

The suspended rescue mission would resume after bore holes could

be drilled to allow for toxic gases to be ventilated from Massey

Energy Co.'s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine about 30 miles south

of Charleston, state and federal safety officials said.

"All we have left is hope, and we're going to continue to do

what we can," Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal

Mine Safety and Health Administration, said at a news conference.

"But I'm just trying to be honest with everybody and say that the

situation does look dire."

Though the cause of the blast was not known, the operation run

by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co. has a history of

violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane

gas, safety officials said.

Stricklin said officials had hoped some of the missing survived

the initial blast Monday afternoon and were able to reach airtight

chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for them to

live for four days. However, rescue teams checked one of two nearby

and it was empty. The buildup of toxic methane gas - a constant

problem at the mine - and of carbon monoxide prevented teams from

reaching other chambers, officials said.

A total of 29 miners were in the area during a shift change when

the blast happened, Stricklin said. Some may have died in the blast

and others when they breathed in the gas-filled air, he said. Seven

bodies have been recovered and identified, but the other 18 have

not, said Gov. Joe Manchin, who returned to the state after being

out of town

"Everybody's just heartbroken over this and the impact on these

families," said mine safety director Joe Main, who planned to go

to West Virginia.

State mining director Ron Wooten said though the situation does

not seem promising, rescuers weren't done.

"We haven't given up hope at all," he said.

It is the most people killed in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27

died in a fire at Emery Mining Corp.'s mine in Orangeville, Utah.

If the four missing bring the total to 29, it would be the most

killed in a U.S. mine since a 1970 explosion killed 38 at Finley

Coal Co., in Hyden, Ky.

After a record low 34 deaths last year, Main said he and others

believed coal mining had turned the corner on preventing fatal

accidents.

"There's always danger. There's so many ways you can get hurt,

or your life taken," said Gary Williams, a miner and pastor of a

church near the southern West Virginia mine. "It's not something

you dread every day, but there's always that danger. But for this

area, it's the only way you're going to make a living."

Benny R. Willingham, 62, who was five weeks away from retiring,

was among those who perished, said his sister-in-law Sheila

Prillaman.

He had mined for 30 years, the last 17 with Massey, and planned

to take his wife on a cruise to the Virgin Islands next month, she

said.

"Benny was the type - he probably wouldn't have stayed retired

long," Prillaman said. "He wasn't much of a homebody."

Prillaman said family members were angry because they learned of

Willingham's death after reading it on a list Massey posted,

instead of being contacted by the company, which said it wouldn't

release names until next of kin were notified.

"The families want closure," Gov. Joe Manchin said at a news

conference. "They want names ... these families are good people.

Hard working people. They understand the challenges. Right now I

told them to do what they do best. Love each other and come

together as a family."

He said some families were hoping for a miracle.

Nine miners were leaving on a vehicle that takes them in and out

of the mine's long shaft when a crew ahead of them felt a blast of

air and went back to investigate, Stricklin said.

They found nine workers, seven of whom were dead. Others were

hurt or missing about a mile and a half inside the mine, though

there was some confusion over how many.

Massey Energy, a publicly traded company based in Richmond, Va.,

has 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia,

eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee, according to

the company's Web site. It ranks among the nation's top five coal

producers and is among the industry's most profitable. It has a

spotty safety record.

In the past year, federal inspectors fined the company more than

$382,000 for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation

plan and equipment at Upper Big Branch. The violations also cover

failing to follow the plan, allowing combustible coal dust to pile

up, and having improper firefighting equipment.

Upper Big Branch has had three other fatalities in the last

dozen years.

Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining, and federal

records say the Eagle coal seam releases up to 2 million cubic feet

of methane gas into the Upper Big Branch mine every 24 hours, which

is a large amount, said Dennis O'Dell, health and safety director

for the United Mine Workers labor union.

In mines, giant fans are used to keep the colorless, odorless

gas concentrations below certain levels. If concentrations are

allowed to build up, the gas can explode with a spark roughly

similar to the static charge created by walking across a carpet in

winter, as at the Sago mine, also in West Virginia where 12 were

killed in 2006.

Since then, federal and state regulators have required mine

operators to store extra oxygen supplies. Upper Big Branch uses

containers that can generate about an hour of breathable air, and

all miners carry a container on their belts besides the stockpiles

inside the mine.

At New Life Assembly down the road from the disaster in Pettus,

the 51-year-old pastor and miner Williams held a vigil with some of

his faithful. They cooked hotdogs and brought in doughnuts and

pizza for worried friends and family of the fallen and missing men,

but only a few had trickled in to pray and seek solace.

Most families were sequestered in a building at the mine, the

entrance guarded by bright lights, state troopers and hordes of

ambulances.

Williams, who works at another Massey mine, said he knows the

men at Upper Big Branch were professional and well-trained.

"People tend to think Massey does a lot of wrong, but I've been

there for 18 years and they've never asked me to do anything

unsafe," he said.

The mine has 19 openings and roughly 7-foot ceilings. Inside,

it's crisscrossed with railroad tracks used for hauling people and

equipment. It is located in a mine-laced swath of Raleigh and Boone

counties that is the heart of West Virginia's coal country.

The seam produced 1.2 million tons of coal in 2009, according to

the mine safety agency, and has about 200 employees, most of whom

work underground on different shifts.

"The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration will

investigate this tragedy, and take action," U.S. Secretary of

Labor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement. "Miners should never

have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood."