MONTCOAL, W.Va. – An explosion at a remote coal mine with a history of safety problems killed 25 workers, and at least four others were still missing early today more than a thousand feet underground in the worst U.S. mine disaster since 1984.
Rescuers had been making their way to the area where the miners were believed trapped at Massey Energy Co.’s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine, where the blast occurred around 3 p.m. Monday. However, safety officials said at a news conference that the search was suspended because rising methane gas levels in the mine made it a high risk for another explosion.
Earlier, Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said officials hoped some of the missing survived the initial blast and were able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for them to live for four days. However, rescue teams made it to one of two nearby shelters and it was empty. The gas levels prevented them from reaching the second.
Massey Energy and safety officials confirmed that 25 bodies were found. The death toll had risen from seven earlier in the day to 12 at about midnight. A total of 29 miners were in the area when the blast happened, he said.
“It does not appear that any of the individuals made it to a rescue chamber,” Stricklin said at a news conference. “The situation is dire.”
State mining director Ron Wooten said that though the situation does not seem promising to reach the four still missing, rescuers wouldn’t give up.
“We haven’t given up hope at all,” he said.
In 1984, 27 were killed by a fire at Emery Mining Corp.’s mine in Orangeville, Utah.
Benny R. Willingham, 62, who was five weeks away from retiring, was among those killed in West Virginia, 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 had said it wouldn’t release names until next of kin were notified.
Though the cause of the blast was not known, the operation about 30 miles south of Charleston has a history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane gas, safety officials said.
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.
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 have fined the company more than $382,000 for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment at Upper Big Branch, which is run by subsidiary Performance Coal Co. The violations also cover failing to follow the plan, allowing combustible coal dust to pile up, and having improper firefighting equipment.
The mine 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.
The colorless, odorless gas is often sold to American consumers to heat homes and cook meals. In mines, giant fans are used to keep methane 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.
West Virginia requires all underground mines to have wireless communications and tracking systems designed to survive explosions and other disasters. However, Stricklin said much of the network near the missing men was likely destroyed in the explosion.
“West Virginians are tough. We will bind together,” said U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, whose district includes the area where the mine is located.
The mine, which cannot be seen from the road, 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.
In each of the last three years, Massey has had multiple operations cited by MSHA as repeat violators of safety and health rules and ordered to improve their conditions. Upper Big Branch was not one of them.
Last year, the number of miners killed on the job in the U.S. fell for a second straight year to 34, the fewest since officials began keeping records nearly a century ago. That was down from the previous low of 52 in 2008.