UPDATED: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 9:53am
MONTCOAL, W.Va. – Rescuers held out slim hope Tuesday that four missing coal miners might have survived when a mine repeatedly cited for improperly venting methane gas exploded, killing 25 people in the country's deadliest underground disaster in a quarter-century.
A day after the blast in southern West Virginia, desperate rescuers began boring into the mine in hopes of releasing poisonous gases so crews could go in search of the men. But Gov. Joe Manchin said it could be Wednesday before much progress is made.
"I don't want to give anybody any false hope, but by golly, if I'm on that side of the table, and that's my father or my brother or my uncle or my cousins, I'm going to have hope," he said.
The missing miners might have been able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for four days. But rescue teams checked one of two chambers nearby, and it was empty. The buildup of gases prevented them from reaching the second chamber. Officials said they were 90 percent sure of the miners' location.
On Tuesday, bulldozers carved an access road to make way for drilling crews, who planned to dig four shafts to vent methane, a highly combustible gas that accumulates naturally in coal mines, and carbon monoxide from the blast site about 1,000 feet beneath the surface.
Crews began drilling two side-by-side holes that start at 12 inches in diameter and narrow to 6 inches. They hoped to open more holes later Tuesday evening. The digging could be done by midday Wednesday.
Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine, was fined more than $382,000 in the past year for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment.
The company's chief executive said the mine was not unsafe, but federal regulators planned to review its many violations.
In an area where coal is king, people anxiously awaited word on the missing miners. One resident hung a "Praying 4 Our Miners" banner outside a home. At Libby's City Grill in nearby Whitesville, the accident was the talk at every breakfast table. Owner James Scott was grieving his own loss — his 58-year-old uncle, Deward Scott of Montcoal, was among the dead.
Neither his uncle nor his customers talked much about their work.
"I never heard anyone say anything about the mine, good or bad," James Scott said. "You just don't talk about it."
Diana Davis said her husband, Timmy Davis, 51, died in the explosion along with his nephews, Josh Napper, 27, and Cory Davis, 20.
The elder Davis' son, Timmy Davis Jr., described his father as passionate about the outdoors and the mines. "He loved to work underground," the younger Davis said. "He loved that place." Two other family members survived the blast, he said.
At the time of the explosion, 61 miners were in the mine, about 30 miles south of Charleston.
"Before you knew it, it was just like your ears stopped up. You couldn't hear. And the next thing you know, it's just like you're just right in the middle of a tornado," miner Steve Smith, who heard the explosion but was able to escape, told ABC's "Good Morning America."
Nine miners were leaving on a vehicle that takes them in and out of the mine's long shaft when a crew ahead of them felt a blast of air and went back to investigate, said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The chief executive of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, told The Associated Press on Tuesday that a carbon monoxide warning was the first sign of trouble. Mine crews were checking on the alarm when they discovered an explosion had occurred.
"I don't know that we know what happened," Blankenship said.
Some may have been killed by the blast and others when they inhaled the toxic gases, Stricklin said.
He described how the rescue teams gradually descended through a long, sloping shaft where the miners were operating a huge machine that carves coal from the walls. He said the teams increasingly encountered debris from the mine's ventilation system and other materials.
Federal officials decided to call off the rescue after high methane gas readings in the far reaches of the mine. "The decision was that you can't risk 40 rescue workers," Blankenship said.
Seven bodies have been recovered and identified. The names of the remaining miners were not released, but the AP was able to identify six of them through family members. Two miners injured in the blast were being treated at hospitals. Their names were not released either.
Some grieving relatives were angry because they learned their loved ones were among the dead from government officials, not from Massey Energy executives.
Michelle McKinney found out from a local official at a nearby school that her 61-year-old father, Benny R. Willingham, was among the dead. He was due to retire in five weeks after 30 years of mining.
"These guys, they took a chance every day to work" to make the mining company grow, she said. And company officials "couldn't even call us."
Blankenship said he attended briefings with family members, but largely left contact to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and Massey representatives. He said he was in the room when relatives were notified of the full extent of the tragedy, but the scene was so emotional that he did not interact with them.
Manchin said a Massey official apologized to family members Tuesday for not being notified of the deaths.
The death toll was the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 people died in a fire at Emery Mining Corp.'s mine in Orangeville, Utah. If the four missing bring the total to 29, it would be the most killed in a U.S. coal mine since a 1970 explosion killed 38 at Finley Coal Co. in Hyden, Ky.
"There's always danger. There's so many ways you can get hurt, or your life taken," said Gary Williams, a miner and pastor of New Life Assembly, a nearby church.
Though the situation looked bleak, the governor said miracles can happen and pointed to the 2006 Sago Mine explosion that killed 12. Crews found miner Randal McCloy Jr. alive after he was trapped for more than 40 hours in an atmosphere poisoned with carbon monoxide.
Massey Energy, a publicly traded company based in Richmond, Va., ranks among the nation's top five coal producers and is among the industry's most profitable. It has 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee.
Blankenship said the mine was "not thought to be unsafe by the agencies or the company."
"I think that what they (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) said is, 'You know, there's been a lot of debate about the ventilation.' At the times the mine operates and men are in the mine, it complies with whatever the federal and state agencies have agreed."
Stricklin said he was concerned about an initial review of the more serious violations, which indicated that "the operator was aware of some of these conditions."
Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining. In mines, giant fans are used to keep the colorless, odorless gas concentrations below certain levels. If concentrations are allowed to build up, the gas can explode with a spark roughly similar to the static charge created by walking across a carpet in winter.