Mine rescue, recovery to be laborious, governor cautions
25 dead, four missing in W. Va. coal mine blast
April 6, 2010 11:30 AM
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin speaks Tuesday morning during a press conference at the Marsh Fork Elementary School in Whitesville, W.Va. He was onsite to comfort families of miners affected by the explosion at the Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County.
Jeannie Sanger, left, whose brother Benny Willingham was a miner killed in the West Virginia coal mine explosion, speaks with the media with her husband Bobby Sanger at Marsh Fork Elementary School.
Michelle McKinney holds a photo of her father Benny Willingham, one of the miners killed in the West Virginia coal mine explosion. She spoke with the media at Marsh Fork Elementary School.
By Michael A. Fuoco and Sadie Gurman Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MONTCOAL, W.Va. -- West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and mine safety officials cautioned today that rescue and recovery would be a slow, laborious process at a mine where 25 miners were killed and four are still missing.
At a late afternoon press conference, they said drilling of two, side-by-side air shafts began today and had proceeded 160 feet down into the Big Branch Mine by 4 p.m. But the shafts must go more than 1,000 feet. Drilling of two more shafts to release methane and carbon monoxide is to begin by nightfall.
Mr. Manchin said families of the miners have been told that nothing is going to change materially until at least 8 a.m., although the relatives will be given updates on the drilling every two hours. The governor said it was suggested that families could leave the area for food and rest, but he knew most would stay until the ordeal was over.
Rescue and recovery leaders who checked the mine today agreed that the layout of the entry portals and the presence of the methane made it unsafe for crews to attempt to re-enter the mine. They had entered after Monday afternoon's explosion, removing two injured and seven dead workers.
Crews also found the bodies of 18 more miners and were able to identify four of them. Rescue leaders explained today that they did not linger over the dead to determine identities after confirming they were not alive because they had to push on to search for the living. Four miners remain unaccounted for. So authorities have not been able to determine who might be still alive. The search procedure was going as planned Monday until increased levels of dangerous gas were detected.
"We do not give up hope until we have confirmed there are bodies," Kevin Stricklin of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said earlier today. But Mr. Manchin and others said officials and the families know the "odds are against us."
Some relatives of the missing and dead are angry that they haven't been contacted by mine owner Massey Energy Co., having to go through back channels to determine whether their loved ones were entombed in the mine.
Mr. Manchin, who has been meeting with families throughout the day, said a Massey representative was on hand to speak with some of them, but that effort to contact them did not go far enough.
He said he met with a widow of one of the first seven men to be identified, among others.
"She did not understand why she has not heard a word from the company yet," he said. "That contact is needed."
Officials also said they are still trying to determine how the explosion occurred but the governor called it "horrific" enough to cause extreme damage, described to him by rescuers who had gone inside.
"Train rails looked like they had been tied into a pretzel," he said.
At the earlier afternoon briefing, Mr. Manchin deflected questions about whether he was "comfortable" with Massey Energy Co.'s operation of the mine, which has a history of safety violations.
He said he was "never comfortable when something like this happens" but he then talked about waiting until a full investigation could be conducted.
Federal and state mine safety officials echoed his statements about the need for a thorough investigation of Monday afternoon's blast.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said today the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration will investigate the tragedy. "Miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood," she said in a statement.
The blast occurred around 3 p.m. at Massey's sprawling mine as nine miners were coming out of the shaft, said Mr. Stricklin. He said a crew ahead of a coal mine vehicle felt a blast of air and went back in to find out what happened and found seven dead and two injured miners at the vehicle.
West Virginia requires all underground mines to have wireless communications and tracking systems designed to survive explosions and other disasters. However, Mr. Stricklin said much of the communications near the missing men were likely destroyed in the explosion.
More details in tomorrow's Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.