MONTCOAL, W.Va. – Emergency teams stepped up a desperate rescue effort Wednesday despite fading hopes of finding any survivors two days after a devastating explosion killed at least 25 coal miners in the Upper Big Branch mine.
Drilling crews dug three bore holes deep into the rocky mountainside, and planned two others, to ventilate the deadly buildup of highly combustible methane gas, carbon monoxide and coal dust that forced rescue crews to retreat early Tuesday.
Carbon monoxide pouring out of the first 1,100-foot-deep bore hole was so toxic – nearly 300 times more concentrated than considered safe – that the drilling crew was nearly overcome, officials said. A pipe was installed to divert the gas so work could resume.
The carbon monoxide levels fell sharply by evening, but officials said they would test additional air samples from inside the mine to ensure that specially trained mine rescue teams could enter safely.
“We don’t know if we’re going in tonight until we actually see the reading,” said Kevin Stricklin, coal administrator for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III admitted earlier in the day that rescue crews hold only “a sliver of hope for a miracle” that four missing miners had survived.
“The odds are not in our favor because of the horrendous blast we had,” he told reporters who gathered at a nearby elementary school.
Also on Wednesday, about 300 people, many wearing the reflective orange stripes of the miners they love, walked silently through the small town of Whitesville in a candlelight vigil for both the dead and missing. They were not, for the most part, directly related to the miners at Upper Big Branch, but 34-year-old Anna West said they are all of the same brotherhood.
“It’s a family of miners. It’s not just who’s Massey, who’s Peabody … they’re all brothers,” she said.
Officials said the explosion occurred at 3:02 p.m. Monday as 31 miners were coming off the day shift. The blast knocked out lights, communications and ventilation fans, and created a windstorm that roared up shafts to the surface, shooting rocks, dirt and debris into the air.
When the gases have vented, 30 rescuers working in six teams will resume the search for the missing miners. Two teams wearing breathing apparatus will lead the way through the dark, debris-filled tunnel, and the others will provide backup and support.
“We’ll ride in as far as we can, then walk in the rest of the way,” Stricklin said. He said it may take several hours to make their way to the blast area, nearly five miles from the entrance.
“They may not be in the exact location we think they are, so we may have to fan out a bit,” he said.
If the rescue teams cannot reach the area, he said, rescuers will dig another bore hole and lower a camera down to see if any of the missing miners reached a special airtight refuge chamber that contains food, water and breathing masks. Miners carry only an hour’s supply of emergency oxygen on them.
“We’re hoping that someone had the ability to get to that chamber,” Stricklin said. “There’s no other way any one could survive.”
The Associated Press contributed to this story.