Rescuers now drilling into mine; 4 miners still missing

MONTCOAL, W.Va. (AP) - Two full days after the worst U.S. mining
disaster in a generation, dangerous gases underground prevented
rescuers Wednesday from venturing 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.
Stricklin said relatives of the miners backed the decision to
hold off for now.
"We've asked the families to be patient," he said.
Gov. Joe Manchin 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 if anyone managed
to get inside.
"We've been working against long odds from day one," Manchin
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, MSHA
cited the mine with two safety violations - one involving
inadequate maps of escape routes, the other concerning an improper
splice of electrical cable.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship has strongly defended the company's
record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal
profits ahead of safety.
As of late Wednesday, 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.
Family members could do little but wait.
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' 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. They're still drilling."
Seven bodies were pulled out after the explosion, and two miners
were hospitalized. Manchin said Wednesday 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.
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.
"It was to the point that it was affecting the drillers,"
Stricklin said. "They were standing right next to where noxious
gas was coming out."
Miner William "Bob" Griffith's family was preparing for the
worst. Griffith went to work Monday and never came home, said his
brother, James Griffith, who also works at the mine. William
Griffith's brother-in-law, Carl Acord, died in the explosion.
"In my honest opinion, if anyone else survives it, I will be
surprised," James Griffith said.
Doug Griffith, another of William Griffith's brothers and also a
miner, sat down with his family after getting a briefing on the
rescue effort, said his wife, Cindi.
"He just said we really need to prepare for the worst," she
said. "They don't feel like there's any hope."
Once rescuers can get into the mine, it could take less than two
hours to get far enough inside to check for survivors, depending on
conditions, Stricklin said. They would be about 1,000 feet below
the surface, and at least 1½ miles from the entrance.
The quality and quantity of coal produced at Upper Big Branch
make the mine one of gems of Massey's operation. The mine produced
more than 1.2 million tons of coal last year and uses the
lowest-cost underground mining method, making it more profitable.
The mine produces metallurgical coal that is used to make steel and
sells for up to $200 a ton - more than double the price for the
type of coal used by power plants.
The confirmed death toll of 25 was the highest in a U.S. 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 U.S. coal mining disaster since a 1970 explosion killed 38 in
Hyden, Ky.
The family of 50-year-old Ricky Workman was told he was among
those missing, said a niece, Tammy Cruz of Cleveland. Cruz said
Workman had complained to family members about ventilation problems
in the mine.
"He'd be complaining for weeks," Cruz said. "And he had told
them, `Does somebody else have to die before you do something about
this?' He knew this was coming."
Workman's family waited with other families in seclusion at the
mine complex.
"Ricky's got a young soul," Cruz said. "He's a fighter. He's
a smart guy. Hopefully he got to one of those safe places and
they're going to pull him out alive."
Associated Press writers Greg Bluestein, Allen G. Breed, Vicki
Smith, Tom Breen, Tim Huber and John Raby and videojournalist Mark
Carlson in West Virginia; Mitch Weiss and Mike Baker in North
Carolina; Ray Henry in Atlanta; and Sam Hananel in Washington
contributed to this report.

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

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