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25 killed in West Virginia mine explosion; 4 still missing

By LAWRENCE MESSINA
Associated Press Writer
MONTCOAL, W.Va. (AP) - Rescuers held out slim hope Tuesday 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 of the men. But Gov. Joe Manchin
said it could be Wednesday 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," he said.
Officials 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 them from reaching
other chambers.
On Tuesday, 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. The digging could be done by midday Wednesday.
Massey Energy Co., which operated the Upper Big Branch mine, was
fined more than $382,000 in the past year for repeated serious
violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment.
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. One resident hung a "Praying 4 Our Miners"
banner outside a home. At Libby's City Grill in nearby Whitesville,
the accident was the talk at every breakfast table. Owner James
Scott was grieving his own loss - his 58-year-old uncle, Deward
Scott of Montcoal, was among the dead.
Neither his uncle nor his customers talked much about their
work.
"I never heard anyone say anything about the mine, good or
bad," James Scott said. "You just don't talk about it."
Diana Davis said her husband, Timmy Davis, 51, died in the
explosion along with his nephews, Josh Napper, 27, and Cory Davis,
20.
The elder Davis' son, Timmy Davis Jr., described his father as
passionate about the outdoors and the mines. "He loved to work
underground," the younger Davis said. "He loved that place." Two
other family members survived the blast, he said.
At the time of the explosion, 61 miners were in the mine, about
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 federal Mine Safety and Health
Administration.
The chief executive of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, told The
Associated Press on Tuesday 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.
"I don't know that we know what happened," Blankenship said.
Some may have been killed by the blast and others when they
inhaled the toxic gases, Stricklin said.
He described how the rescue teams gradually descended through a
long, sloping shaft where the miners were operating a huge machine
that carves coal from the walls. He said the teams increasingly
encountered debris from the mine's ventilation system and other
materials.
Federal officials decided to call off the rescue after high
methane gas readings in the far reaches of the mine. "The decision
was that you can't risk 40 rescue workers," Blankenship said.
Eleven bodies had been recovered and identified, but the other
14 have not. Names were not released.
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, but
largely left contact to the federal Mine Safety and Health
Administration and Massey representatives. He said he was in the
room when relatives were notified of the full extent of the
tragedy, but the scene was so emotional that he did not interact
with them.
Manchin said a Massey official apologized to family members
Tuesday for not being notified of the deaths.
The death toll was the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when
27 people died in a fire at Emery Mining Corp.'s mine in
Orangeville, Utah. If the four missing bring the total to 29, it
would be the most killed in a U.S. coal mine since a 1970 explosion
killed 38 at Finley Coal Co. in Hyden, Ky.
"There's always danger. There's so many ways you can get hurt,
or your life taken," said Gary Williams, a miner and pastor of New
Life Assembly, a nearby church.
Though the situation looked bleak, the governor said miracles
can happen and pointed to the 2006 Sago Mine explosion that killed
12. Crews found miner Randal McCloy Jr. alive after he was trapped
for more than 40 hours in an atmosphere poisoned with carbon
monoxide.
Massey Energy, a publicly traded company based in Richmond, Va.,
ranks among the nation's top five coal producers and is among the
industry's most profitable. It has 2.2 billion tons of coal
reserves in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest
Virginia and Tennessee.
Blankenship said the mine was "not thought to be unsafe by the
agencies or the company."
"I think that what they (the Mine Safety and Health
Administration) said is, 'You know, there's been a lot of debate
about the ventilation.' At the times the mine operates and men are
in the mine, it complies with whatever the federal and state
agencies have agreed."
Stricklin said he was concerned about an initial review of the
more serious violations, which indicated that "the operator was
aware of some of these conditions."
Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining. In mines,
giant fans are used to keep the colorless, odorless gas
concentrations below certain levels. If concentrations are allowed
to build up, the gas can explode with a spark roughly similar to
the static charge created by walking across a carpet in winter.
---
Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed, Vicki Smith, Tom Breen
and Tim Huber in West Virginia and Sam Hananel in Washington
contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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