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Gas in W.Va. mine halts rescue

Governor holds ‘sliver of hope’ 4 alive inside

Four Massey Energy workers took a break from drilling ventilation holes at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, W.Va. Four Massey Energy workers took a break from drilling ventilation holes at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in Montcoal, W.Va. (Jeff Gentner/AFP/Getty Images)
By Lawrence Messina and Greg Bluestein
Associated Press / April 8, 2010

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MONTCOAL, W.Va. — Two full days after the worst US mining disaster in a generation, dangerous gases prevented rescuers yesterday from going into the Upper Big Branch coal mine to search for any survivors of the explosion that killed at least 25 workers.

Crews drilled holes deep into the ground to release the gases, but by late afternoon the levels of lethal carbon monoxide and highly explosive hydrogen and methane remained far too high for searchers to look for the last four people missing.

“We just can’t take any chances’’ with the lives of rescuers, said Kevin Stricklin of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. “If we’re going to send a rescue team, we have to say it’s safe for them to go in there.’’

Officials could not say when rescuers might be able to go in the mine.

Stricklin said relatives of the miners backed the decision to hold off for now.

“We’ve asked the families to be patient,’’ he said.

Governor Joseph Manchin III and others saw only a “sliver of hope’’ that the miners survived by reaching one of the shaft’s rescue chambers, which are stocked with food, water, and enough oxygen to last four days. Workers planned to drill another hole so they could lower a camera into one of the airtight chambers to see whether anyone managed to get inside.

“We’ve been working against long odds from day one,’’ Manchin warned.

The federal mine agency appointed a team of investigators to look into the blast, which officials said may have been caused by a buildup of methane.

The mine’s owner, Massey Energy Co., has been repeatedly cited for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up. On the very day of the blast, the Mine Safety and Health Administration cited the mine with two safety violations — one involving inadequate maps of escape routes, the other concerning an improper splice of electrical cable.

Don Blankenship, Massey CEO, has strongly defended the company’s record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts profits ahead of safety.

As of late yesterday, there had been no signs of life deep underground since the explosion. During the drilling of the ventilation holes, rescuers banged on a pipe for about 15 minutes but got no response. Miners are trained to bang on drilling equipment and ceiling bolts if trapped.

Alice Peters said she was told her 47-year-old son-in-law, Dean Jones, was among the missing, though Massey said it does not know which four miners might be alive.

Peters said Jones’s wife, Gina, has been at the mine site since the explosion and would not leave. “She’s not doing too good,’’ Peters said. “They told them to go home because they weren’t going to let the mine rescuers back in.’’

Seven bodies were pulled out after the explosion, and two miners were hospitalized. Manchin said yesterday that one was doing well and the other was in intensive care. Eighteen bodies remained in the mine, but emergency workers were able to identify only four before methane forced them out Monday.

Once the rescuers get back in the mine, they will have to go about 1,000 feet below the surface and at least 1.5 miles from the entrance, Stricklin said.

During the drilling of the ventilation holes, the amount of methane, hydrogen, and carbon monoxide coming out of the mine was so high — the carbon monoxide was 280 times above safe levels — that ventilation had to be set up at the surface to protect the rescue workers, Stricklin said.

The confirmed death toll of 25 was the highest in a US 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 US coal mining disaster since a 1970 explosion killed 38 in Hyden, Ky.