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 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, officials said. Some may have died in the blast
and others when they breathed in the gas-filled air, Stricklin said. Seven bodies had been recovered and identified, but the other
18 have not, said Gov. Joe Manchin, who returned to the state after being out of town. Names weren't released publicly.
"Everybody's just heartbroken over this and the impact on these families," said mine safety director Joe Main, who was headed to
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
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.