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
"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
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
"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
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
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."