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Search for missing miners delayed

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Leaders' reactions to explosion

MONTCOAL, W.Va. -- Rescuers at the site of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in more than two decades likely won't be able to resume the search for four missing miners until at least Wednesday evening, officials said this afternoon.

Gov. Joe Manchin said it would take at least that long for crews to drill boreholes into the mine to ventilate poison gases and make the underground environment safe for rescuers to resume their search.

Manchin also promised to hold a public hearing as part of the investigation into Monday afternoon's explosion that killed 25 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.

During a news briefing shortly after noon, Manchin said rescuers who have been deep inside the mine described mine railcar tracks that were "twisted like a pretzel."

"It's quite evident that something went very wrong here," said Kevin Stricklin, administrator for coal mine safety at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, who joined Manchin at the briefing.

Tuesday afternoon, the state Medical Examiner identified the first seven victims of the disaster: Steven J. Harrah, 40; William R. Lynch, 59; Jason Atkins, 25; Benny Ray Willingham, 61; Carl Accord, 52; Deward Allan Scott, 58; and Robert E. Clark, 41.

Rescuers were pulled out of the mine early today because of dangerously high levels of methane, and crews were beginning the process of drilling boreholes to vent the explosive gases and make it safe for rescuers to return underground.

The holes will be drilled in three places where the four missing miners are most likely going to be -- near the mining wall and inside the rescue chamber, said Jimmy Gianato, state director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The holes have to be vented as they are drilled down and pipes have to be inserted to seal off the layers of mined-out area between solid rock, Manchin said.

The rescue teams searched past the point where they were endangering their own lives, Stricklin said. They reached the first of two rescue chambers in the mine before methane levels became too high to continue, he said.

Miners have enough food and water to last 96 hours, he said.

"As soon as we can send rescue teams back in the mine, we'll do it," Stricklin said. "I think it's a dire situation."

Sheri McGraw, director of communications for the American Red Cross' Central West Virginia chapter, was with miners' families when state and mine officials told them that 25 miners have been found dead so far.

"I just don't think there is much hope held out at all [with the families]," McGraw said. "They made it clear to the families that it is not a good situation in there and probably not survivable."

When the families were told the latest news, there were all sorts of reactions, she said.

"I think in a situation like this, everybody acts differently," McGraw said. "Some people go blank, some break down and cry, some rage and are angry. It was all of this all at the same time."

Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat who has represented the area in Congress for more than 30 years, traveled to the scene to stand vigil with the families of the missing 19 miners. Rahall said he and Manchin had just visited with the miners' families.

"There is a great deal of comfort being bestowed on them right now," Rahall said at a 6 a.m. press conference. "All things considered they are strong."

One man, a family member of a victim of the Sago disaster, drove down to be with the families, he said.

"He is able to talk to them in a way very few could," Manchin said.

Though names have not been released, three members of one family all died in the disaster, Manchin said. Another member of the family was also in the mine, but survived, he said. That man lost his son, nephew and older brother, said Manchin, who lost an uncle in the Farmington Mine disaster in 1968.

One of the four men still missing was believed to be running the longwall miner deep in the mine, Manchin said. The others were believed to be in another section, deep in the mine.

Gianato said that some emergency breathing devices were missing from a storage cache deep in the mine. Rescuers are operating under the assumption that trapped miners may have grabbed those to help them survive until help arrived, he said.

The accident occurred at about 3 p.m. Monday at Massey Energy subsidiary Performance Coal Co.'s Upper Big Branch Mine-South.

Stricklin said at a briefing just after 2 a.m. Tuesday that 25 miners were killed in the explosion.

The explosion is the deadliest mine disaster in the United States since 1984, when 27 people were killed at a Utah mine.

Stricklin said the explosion is believed to have occurred near shift change as a crew was exiting the operation in a mantrip, an underground mine vehicle.

There were nine miners on the mantrip, Manchin said at a 4 a.m. press conference after meeting with the miners' families. Of those, seven died and two survived and are in the hospital, he said. One of the seven died at the hospital, he said.

Manchin was on an out-of-state trip and headed back to the state after hearing about the "horrific blast," he said.

"These are good people, hard working people," Manchin said. "I asked them to do what they do best -- to love each other."

Earlier he sent out a press release, saying he spoke with President Obama, who promised to make every asset available to help.

"Tonight we mourn the deaths of our members at Massey Energy," Massey CEO Don Blankenship said in a prepared statement. "I want to offer my condolences to the miners' families who lost loved ones at Upper Big Branch. And I want to thank the rescue teams and the Massey members who continue to work hard on behalf of our miners and their families."

The disaster comes just four years after a series of mine accidents in West Virginia and Kentucky -- including one that brought criminal prosecution of a Massey subsidiary -- killed 19 workers and prompted the first reform of U.S. mine safety laws in 30 years.

Mine safety experts who were in contact with state and federal investigators said initial reports are that the explosion involved methane that built up inside a sealed area of the mine or that leaked through mine seals.

Such a scenario would be a repeat of the 2006 Sago and Darby disasters in West Virginia and Kentucky, which claimed 17 lives and prompted regulators to take a closer look at the safety of the vast sealed areas of underground coal mines for the first time in years.

"Seals can be deadly if they are not maintained and monitored properly," said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staff and longtime mine safety expert from Kentucky.

Outside the Upper Big Branch site, witnesses reported seeing smoke billowing from the mine, and several miners apparently escaped after donning their emergency breathing devices.

More than two dozen ambulances were staged in Whitesville, and crowds of residents lined the streets waiting for word on the potential disaster. Authorities had gathered families of the miners at a Baptist church in Whitesville and at a training building on the mine property, officials said.

"If you're from here, you're part of a coal mining family," said Grace Lafferty of nearby Harper. "You know a lot of people who work here. It takes your breath away, your heart drops and you have that empty feeling."

One miner from the Massey operation declined to give his name, but said, "This is scary in more ways than one."

"We've been through this many times before, and we know West Virginians will band together to get through it, but it doesn't get any easier," Rahall said.

At the 2 a.m. press conference, Rahall said that, though improvements were made after Sago, mine safety laws would have to be looked at again in light of the loss of life on Monday.

"It's unfortunate, but every mine safety law we have on the books today was written in the blood of coal miners," Rahall said. "Obviously, one coal miner's death is one too many."

Margaret White works at the Country General store, just a few miles from the mine.

"I see the men that work there every day. I know what kind of biscuit they want," she said. "I can't believe this happened. They all know me by name, even if I don't know theirs."

Area churches were open throughout the night, cooking food and providing a place for people to gather and pray.

Gary Williams, pastor of the New Life Assembly Church in Whitesville, said he knew many of the miners. At 1 a.m., members of his church were cooking hotdogs to send up to the families and rescue workers.

"We are just as in the dark as you are," said Williams, who works at a different Massey mine. "We are all familiar with them. They're friends we grew up with. Our kids play ball together."

A volunteer wearing a yellow reflective vest walked in the church to pick up the hot dogs.

"I've got hungry rescue workers up there, hungry families, hungry medical examiners," she said.

The Upper Big Branch Mine-South employs about 200 workers and last year produced about 1.2 million tons of coal, according to company disclosures filed with MSHA.

In seven of the last 10 years, the mine has recorded a non-fatal injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations, according to MSHA statistics.

Between 2008 and last year, safety violations at the operation more than doubled and fines issued by MSHA tripled, according to agency records.

One miner was killed at the operation in a July 2003 electrical accident and another in a March 2001 roof fall, according to MSHA records.

In January 2006, two miners died in a fire at Massey's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine. Eventually, Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty to 10 criminal mine safety violations and paid $2.5 million in fines related to that fatal fire.

On its corporate Web site, Richmond, Va.-based Massey says that in 2009, the company recorded "an all-time best" non-fatal accident rate and was the "6th consecutive year and the 17th year out of the past 20 years in which Massey's safety performance was stronger than the industry average."

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702. Reach Gary Harki at gharki@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5163. Reach Kathryn Gregory at kathryng@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5119.


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