Two coal miners were buried in debris and killed Saturday in a southern West Virginia mine.
The miners were part of a crew engaged in a technique called retreat mining when a collapse occurred before 11 a.m. at the Cucumber Mine, said Ted Pile, a spokesman for Abingdon, Va.-based Alpha Natural Resources. Alpha's Brooks Run Mining subsidiary operates the mine.
"The day crew was in the process of pillaring, which is actually pulling out of a mined out area," Pile said.
Retreat mining involves removing pillars of coal that were first left as roof supports.
It is unknown whether the miners were killed by falling roof material or a collapse of one of the mine's pillars.
The deaths are the first in West Virginia's coal mines this year and the second and third in the nation and follow 47 fatalities in 2006, the highest death toll since 1995. Twenty-four of the deaths occurred in West Virginia.
Pile said 35 miners were underground at the time of the accident. The rest of the dayshift left the mine safely, he said.
"We're in the process of notifying the families," Pile said. "We will probably release the names once the families are notified."
The mine was closed Saturday and will remain closed until regulators allow it to reopen, Pile said.
Emergency dispatchers said the accident occurred more than a mile from the entrance of the mine.
Additional details weren't immediately available. State Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training Director Ron Wooten said it is unclear whether a pillar or portion of the roof collapsed.
"We won't know until they complete the underground investigation," Wooten said. State and federal Mine Safety and Health Administration investigators were at the mine and planned to begin interviewing witnesses Monday. Alpha also has safety officials at the mine, Pile said.
Wooten said the miners' bodies had been taken to a hospital in Welch.
The fatality was the first at the mine, which opened in 2004 and is located about 90 miles west of Roanoke, Va.
MSHA director Richard Stickler said the agency was "saddened by the tragic accident" and said it was working closely with the state to find out the cause.
"We will take appropriate action on our findings," he said.
The mine produced 375,665 tons of coal last year. Federal inspectors cited it 65 times in 2006 and proposed penalties totaling $5,000, according to MSHA's Web site.
Alpha operates 66 mines in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Nationwide, it employs about 3,500 people, including 118 at the Cucumber Mine.