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Latest rescue attempt inside mine turned away by smoke and fire

By TOM BREEN and DENA POTTER
Associated Press Writers
MONTCOAL, W.Va. (AP) - Rescue teams trekked far enough into a
ruined coal mine early Friday to see that no one had used a chamber
where four missing miners could have sought refuge, further dimming
hopes of anyone else surviving an explosion that killed 25.
The teams encountered smoke and, fearing fire, had to turn back
before they could check a second chamber - the last chance for the
four miners' survival. It was the latest gut-wrenching setback in a
rescue effort that started with only the slimmest likelihood of
finding anyone alive after Monday's blast, the worst U.S. mine
disaster in two decades.
It was the third time since the explosion at Massey Energy Co.'s
Upper Big Branch mine that rescuers had to pull back after making
their way about 1,000 feet below the surface and about five miles
into the massive coal mine. The teams had to scramble back to the
surface during their previous attempts because of dangerous gases
that could set off another explosion or fire.
"We had a long night and we had a difficult night," Gov. Joe
Manchin said.
Manchin said rescuers carried with them four extra oxygen packs,
just in case. But even before they went back underground, officials
started using words like "recovery" and "bodies" more
frequently.
As crews waited for another hole to be drilled so a camera could
be dropped to check on the final refuge chamber, more details
emerged about an extensive list of safety violations at the mine.
Federal regulators issued evacuation orders for all or parts of the
Upper Big Branch mine more than 60 times since the start of 2009,
according to a report prepared for Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of
West Virginia.
In 2007, the mine met criteria to be declared by the Mine Safety
and Health Administration to have a pattern of violations. This
would have allowed for stricter oversight by the federal agency,
including the potential shutdown of the mine, but Massey was able
to reduce the number of the most serious violations and avoid the
declaration.
Pam Napper, whose 25-year-old son Josh died in the blast, said
he had been sent home early the Friday before the explosion because
of concerns about ventilation in the mine. He called her at 3:30
p.m. and she asked why he wasn't at work, where he usually stayed
until at least 5:30.
"He said, 'Mom, the ventilation's bad,"' Pam Napper recalled
Friday. "And they sent him out of the mines. Everybody. He went
back to work Monday."
Before that, apparently over Easter weekend, he wrote a letter
to his mother, his fiancee and his 19-month-old daughter, telling
them that he would be looking down from heaven if anything happened
to him.
"I just knew that Josh in his heart knew that something was
going to happen," Pam Napper said.
MSHA has appointed a team of investigators to look into the
explosion, and President Barack Obama said he has asked federal
mine safety officials to report next week on what may have caused
the blast. Officials have suggested a buildup of methane may have
been to blame.
There have been no signs of life inside the mine since the day
of the explosion, but officials and miners' families prayed the
four miners somehow made it to one of two refuge chambers stocked
with four days' worth of oxygen, food and water for more than a
dozen miners. It's possible that with fewer miners inside, they
could survive for longer than four days.
As rescue teams tried to get to the last chamber, they found
signs of fire and smoke and had to retreat before they could
determine if any miners were inside. It was not clear what might
have been burning, said Kevin Stricklin of the Mine Safety and
Health Administration.
The refuge chamber is an expandable box activated by opening a
door and pulling a lever. It takes about five minutes for the
chamber to deploy, and crews using a camera or checking person
should be able to see easily whether that happened, said Rory
Paton-Ash, a spokesman for the manufacturer, Strata Safety.
"You would know very, very clearly if it had been deployed,"
he said.
Search teams had gotten frustratingly close a day earlier to
answers for the families of the missing miners - just 500 feet from
the emergency chambers where any survivors would be - then were
ordered to retreat because of volatile gas.
With the air deemed slightly safer four days after the blast and
nitrogen being pumped in from above ground to neutralize explosive
methane gas, rescuers went back in just before 2 a.m., navigating
rubble strewn with bodies, twisted railroad track, shattered
concrete block walls and mounds of dust.
The wait has been tough on families, but they said they
understand the delay.
"We know it takes time. We know they have to wait until the
threat level goes down," said Pamela Lynch, whose husband Melvin
emerged unharmed from the mine after the explosion. His brother,
William, died in the blast. "If not, we'll have more casualties.
And that's the last thing this community needs."
Massey Energy has been repeatedly cited and fined for problems
with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible
dust to build up. CEO Don Blankenship has strongly defended the
company's record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts
coal profits ahead of safety.
Of the 25 confirmed dead, 18 bodies remain inside. Seven bodies
were removed earlier in the week. Two other miners survived, and
one of them remains hospitalized.
After rescue teams left the mine because of dangerous levels of
poisonous gas, they waited around all day Thursday for another
chance to go back in. The third trip was expected to be quicker
because they had found a short cut to the search area, and would be
able to ride on ATVs instead of trudging on foot after the
underground rail cars run out of track. They had also left behind a
lot of their gear to pick up on the way.
--
Associated Press Writers Allen G. Breed, Greg Bluestein, Tim
Huber, Vicki Smith 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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