MONTCOAL, W.Va. (AP) — Dangerous gases forced rescue crews to abandon the search Thursday for four coal miners missing since an explosion killed 25 colleagues in the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than two decades.
Rescue crews had been working their way through the Upper Big Branch mine by rail car and on foot early Thursday, but officials said they had to turn back because of an explosive mix of gases in the area they needed to search.
“We think they are in danger and that’s the whole intent of evacuating them from the mine,” said Kevin Stricklin of the Mine Health and Safety Administration.
The rescuers made it to within about 1,000 feet of an airtight chamber with four days worth of food, water and oxygen where they hoped the miners might have sought refuge. They did not make it far enough to see the bodies of the dead or determine if anyone had made it to the chamber.
Stricklin acknowledged the evacuation was a setback, but said he hoped crews would be able to get back in within a few hours after a bigger hole was drilled to allow fresh air into the mine. He said the families of the dead and missing understood the need to pull rescuers out.
“It’s a roller coaster for these people,” Stricklin said. “It’s very emotional. You can only imagine what it would be like.”
Rescuers had already had to wait to enter the mine until crews drilled holes deep into the earth to ventilate lethal carbon monoxide and highly explosive hydrogen as well as methane gas, which has been blamed for the explosion. The air quality was deemed safe enough early in the day for four teams of eight members each to go on what officials were still calling a rescue mission, but later tests showed the air was too dangerous to continue.
Once inside, rescuers had to walk through an area officials have described as strewn with bodies, twisted railroad track, shattered concrete block walls and vast amounts of dust. Each team member was wearing 30 pounds of breathing equipment, lugging first-aid equipment and trying to see through total darkness with only a cap lamp to light the way.
Officials and townsfolk alike acknowledged they didn’t expect to find any of the four missing miners alive more than two days after the massive explosion. Poisonous gases have filled the underground tunnels since Monday afternoon’s blast.
“This was a scenario that we didn’t want,” Gov. Joe Manchin said as he briefed reporters about the evacuations. Families of those still in the mine continued to arrive at the mine’s training center to await word of their fate, and Manchin estimated that perhaps 100 have gathered so far.
“They understand that if we have any hope of survival and they’re in a rescue chamber, then they’re OK,” Manchin said. “That’s the sliver of hope we have.”
Seven bodies had been brought out Monday and authorities hoped to recover 18 others known dead from the mine owned by Massey Energy Co., which has been cited for numerous safety violations.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has appointed a team of investigators to look into the blast, which officials said may have been caused by a buildup of methane.
Massey has been repeatedly cited for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up, including two large fines assessed in January when federal inspectors found dirty air flowing into an escapeway where fresh air should be, and an emergency air system flowing in the wrong direction. Miners were so concerned about the conditions that several told their congressman they were afraid to go back into the mine.
Even on the day of the blast, the federal mine agency cited the mine with two safety violations — one involving inadequate maps of escape routes, the other concerning an improper splice of electrical cable. However, Stricklin said those violations had nothing to do with the explosion.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship has strongly defended the company’s record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety.
The rescue teams needed to trek some five miles from the mine’s entrance to the area where the men might be. Manchin said they had gone as far as they could on underground rail cars called mantrips before wrecked rails meant they had to walk the remaining “couple of miles” to an area where they hoped to find the miners.
The effect of so many sudden deaths in the area’s small coal-reliant communities started showing with obituaries for the victims appearing in local newspapers. The first five funerals were scheduled for Friday and Saturday.
Miner William “Bob” Griffith’s family was preparing for the worst. Griffith went to work Monday and never came home, said his brother, James Griffith, who also works at the mine. William Griffith’s brother-in-law, Carl Acord, died in the explosion.
“In my honest opinion, if anyone else survives it, I will be surprised,” James Griffith said.
Doug Griffith, another of William Griffith’s brothers and also a miner, sat down with his family after getting a briefing on the rescue effort, said his wife, Cindi.
“He just said we really need to prepare for the worst,” she said. “They don’t feel like there’s any hope.”
The mine produced more than 1.2 million tons of coal last year and uses the lowest-cost underground mining method, making it more profitable. It produces metallurgical coal that is used to make steel and sells for up to $200 a ton — more than double the price for the type of coal used by power plants.
The confirmed death toll of 25 was the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 people died in a fire at a mine in Orangeville, Utah. If the four missing bring the total to 29, it will be the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since a 1970 explosion killed 38 in Hyden, Ky.
The explosion and its aftermath have gripped communities that rely on the income the mines provide in the heart of coal country.
Anna West, 34, joined about 300 people, many wearing the reflective orange stripes of the miners they love, to walk silently through the small town of Whitesville in a candlelight vigil for both the dead and missing.
She was with her three young children, thinking of their father, Claude West Jr., who has been a miner for eight years, the last several at the Kanawha Eagle mine.
“It could have just as well been my husband,” she said. “My father was a miner, his father was a miner.
“I already told my son that I don’t want him to be a miner.”