Rescuers drill into W.Va. mine where 25 died
Look to vent poisonous gas; 4 still missing
MONTCOAL, W.Va. — Rescuers held out slim hope yesterday that four missing coal miners might have survived when a mine repeatedly cited for improperly venting methane gas exploded, killing 25 people in the country’s deadliest underground disaster in a quarter-century.
A day after the blast in southern West Virginia, desperate rescuers began boring into the mine in hopes of releasing poisonous gases so crews could go in search for the men. But Governor Joseph Manchin III said it could be midday today before much progress is made.
“I don’t want to give anybody any false hope, but by golly, if I’m on that side of the table, and that’s my father or my brother or my uncle or my cousins, I’m going to have hope,’’ Manchin said.
The missing miners might have been able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water, and enough oxygen for four days. But rescue teams checked one of two chambers nearby, and it was empty. The buildup of gases prevented teams from reaching the second chamber. Officials said they were 90 percent sure of the miners’ location.
Yesterday, bulldozers carved an access road to make way for drilling crews, who planned to dig four shafts to vent methane, a highly combustible gas that accumulates naturally in coal mines, and carbon monoxide from the blast site about 1,000 feet beneath the surface.
Crews began drilling two side-by-side holes that start at 12 inches in diameter and narrow to 6 inches. They hoped to open more holes later last night.
The company’s chief executive said the mine was not unsafe, but federal regulators planned to review its many violations.
In an area where coal is king, people anxiously awaited word on the missing miners. At Libby’s City Grill in nearby Whitesville, the accident was the talk at every table. Owner James Scott was grieving his own loss — his 58-year-old uncle, Deward Scott of Montcoal, was among the dead.
Diana Davis said her husband, Timmy, 51, died along with his nephews, Josh Napper, 27, and Cory Davis, 20.
The elder Davis son, Timmy Jr., described his father as passionate about the outdoors and the mines. “He loved to work underground,’’ Davis said. “He loved that place.’’ Two other family members survived the blast, he said.
Last night, about 50 mourners packed the pews of St. Joseph Catholic Church, a modest building on a lonely rural road a few miles from the mine.
“It’s such a terrible time for West Virginia, but it’s so important to ask for God’s help,’’ said Bishop Michael J. Bransfield. “It demands our cares and it demands our prayers.’’
At the time of the explosion, 61 miners were in the mine, 30 miles south of Charleston.
“Before you knew it, it was just like your ears stopped up. You couldn’t hear. And the next thing you know, it’s just like you’re just right in the middle of a tornado,’’ miner Steve Smith, who heard the explosion but was able to escape, told ABC’s “Good Morning America.’’
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, said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the US Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The chief executive of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, said yesterday that a carbon monoxide warning was the first sign of trouble. Mine crews were checking on the alarm when they discovered an explosion had occurred.
Some may have been killed by the blast and others when they inhaled gases, Stricklin said.
Some grieving relatives were angry because they learned their loved ones were among the dead from government officials, not from Massey Energy executives.
Michelle McKinney found out from a local official at a nearby school that her 61-year-old father, Benny R. Willingham, was among the dead. He was due to retire in five weeks after 30 years of mining.
“These guys, they took a chance every day to work’’ to make the mining company grow, she said, and company officials “couldn’t even call us.’’
Blankenship said he attended briefings with family members.