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Mourning begins as W.Va. mine search resumes

MONTCOAL, W.Va. (AP) - Grieving relatives began burying victims
of the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster Friday as rescue crews
ventured back into the blast-damaged shaft for another agonizingly
slow, dangerous and probably hopeless search for survivors.
It was their fourth attempt to find the four miners missing
since Monday's explosion killed 25 others in the nation's worst
underground disaster since at least 1984. During the previous
rescue attempts, searchers were forced to withdraw by dangerous
gases and the risk of fire or explosion.
"We are praying for a miracle," President Barack Obama said in
Washington.
Rescuers acknowledged that was what it would take for the miners
to have made it to a refuge chamber stocked with food, water and
enough oxygen for several days.
On Friday morning, rescuers made their way about 1,000 feet
underground and five miles into the mine to examine one of the
chambers, but no one was inside and smoke forced them to turn back
before they could check a second one that would represent the last
hope the four were alive.
"We're confident that if they got in there, and they were
alive, that we would be able to still rescue them," said Kevin
Stricklin of the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration.
The area was flushed with nitrogen and crews headed back inside
in the afternoon for what was likely to be a three- or four-hour
trip to the chamber, an expandable box activated by opening a door
and pulling a lever.
Officials had hoped to lower a camera into the mine to see if
the chamber had been used, but the hole was drilled slightly off
target, and Stricklin said they would not have been able to see
anything.
More than 300 people packed the Mullens Pentecostal Holiness
Church for the funeral of Benny Willingham, a 61-year-old miner who
was five weeks from retiring when he died.
He was saved 19 years ago this week, said Rev. Gary Pollard,
pastor of the Mullens Family Worship Center, where Willingham was a
deacon. The two had weekly 45-minute talks - about God, about
Christian living, about their families and friends - every Sunday
morning for the past five years.
Pollard said the last time he saw Willingham, the miner's words
were almost prophetic: "If I die tomorrow, I've lived a good
life."
"He wasn't the biggest man in town. He didn't have the stature
of some of you sitting here," said Pollard, whose own church
across town was too small for the crowd. "But if you could see the
size of this man's heart, you'd see a giant."
Willingham was dressed in a red shirt in the open coffin,
jet-black hair and mustache neatly combed, family snapshots tucked
in the satin around his head and shoulders. The image of a pick,
shovel and miner's helmet was embroidered in the fabric along with
his name, and a flag draped the lower half of his coffin in a nod
to his service during the Vietnam era in the Air Force.
Three Air Force veterans, friends of his for more than 40 years,
traveled with their wives from Ohio, California and North Carolina
to say goodbye.
"That's astonishing," said the Rev. Lewis Arnold, pastor of
the host church, "but that is Benny Willingham."
Officials suspect the blast was caused by a buildup of methane
gas. In the nation's capital, Obama said he asked federal mine
safety officials to give him a report on the disaster next week,
and the House and Senate said they would hold hearings.
In the days since the explosion, details have emerged about a
long list of safety violations at the mine. The owner, Massey
Energy Co., 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.
Federal regulators issued evacuation orders for all or parts of
the mine more than 60 times since the start of 2009, according to a
report prepared for Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va.
In 2007, the mine met criteria to be declared by MSHA to have a
pattern of violations. That would have allowed stricter oversight
by the federal agency and could have led to the 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 explosion,
said the young man had been sent home from work early on the Friday
before the disaster.
"He said, `Mom, the ventilation's bad,"' she recalled. "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.
Of the 25 confirmed dead, 18 bodies remained inside the mine,
and Stricklin said crews will turn their attention to removing
those once they determine whether anyone is still alive.
About two dozen people gathered outside one of the entrances to
Upper Big Branch in show of support, waving signs reading "Praying
for 4 miracles" and "Gold Bless WV Coal Miners."
"You've got to think there's hope. That's all we got,"
65-year-old John Bell said at a diner nearby.
---
Associated Press Writers Allen G. Breed, Greg Bluestein, Tim
Huber, Tom Breen, Dena Potter 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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