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Poisonous gases bring search for missing miners to standstill

An underground explosion that killed at least 25 coal miners created a fireball so intense that it tossed rail cars and twisted steel rail lines, officials said Tuesday, as rescue workers pressed efforts to find four missing miners who may have survived the ghastly blast.


FOR THE RECORD: The headline on an earlier version of this article incorrectly said carbon dioxide was one of the gases hampering rescuers. It should have said carbon monoxide.


Crews worked feverishly Tuesday to carve an access road and drill three 1,100-foot-deep ventilation shafts into the craggy mountain to release the lethal buildup of poisonous methane gas and carbon monoxide that officials believe may have caused the disaster, as well as a fourth tunnel for rescue operations.

But officials said rescue teams won’t enter the vast Upper Big Branch mine safely before 8 a.m. Wednesday, and perhaps much later, adding an agonizing wait to the heartbreak that already has devastated this lonely Appalachian community in southern West Virginia.

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Gov. Joe Manchin III said rescuers still hoped to find the last four miners alive in an airtight emergency chamber that rescuers couldn’t reach before an initial search was suspended as too dangerous at 2 a.m. Tuesday.

But the grim-faced governor made clear that the nation’s deadliest mining accident since 1984 left little room for optimism.

“I don’t want to give anybody false hope,” he said at a news conference. “Maybe there could be a miracle.”

Congressional hearings are expected, and state and federal mining safety officials announced an investigation of the accident. They aimed sharp criticism at the mine owner, Massey Energy Co., which has been cited for scores of safety violations at the mine in the last year.

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“It’s quite evident that something went very wrong here to have an explosion of this magnitude,” said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, part of the Labor Department. “We’ll leave no stone unturned to get to the bottom of what went wrong.”

The fierce explosion ripped through the mine about 3 p.m. Monday, and the news spread down the hardscrabble hollows and rugged ravines almost as quickly.

This is coal country, long used to cruel accidents and harsh isolation, but that didn’t ease the pain.

Manchin said the first rescue teams had been stunned to see that the ferocious blast more than a mile inside the Earth had tossed heavy rail cars like toys and twisted steel rail lines “like a pretzel.”

“It had to be a horrific explosion to cause that kind of damage,” he said.

Stricklin said that some of the miners may have died in the blast and others when they breathed in the poison-filled air. Eleven bodies have been recovered and identified, but 14 others are still entombed in the mine, not including the four missing men.

He said most of the miners were unable to access emergency escape routes or reach specially reinforced refuge chambers that are stocked with food, water and oxygen. He said rescue teams checked one of two such chambers and it was empty, but they could not reach another nearby.

Steve Smith, who was entering another part of the vast mine complex several miles away when the blast occurred, said he quickly realized that something was terribly wrong.

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“The further we got down the track, the more the wind picked up and . . . before you knew it, it’s like your ears stopped up, you couldn’t hear, and the next thing you know, you’re in the middle of a tornado,” he told reporters.

“Since we weren’t that far underground . . . we just hurried up and high-tailed it back to the outside.”

One of the victims, Benny R. Willingham, 62, was a Vietnam veteran who planned to retire next month and go on a celebratory Caribbean cruise after 30 years of digging coal, said his nephew, William Willingham.

“He was a good man,” Willingham said in a phone interview. “My father warned him for years about the danger of coal mining, but he needed the money. It’s a very sad time for my family.”

Three members of the same family were among the dead. Timmy Davis, 51, died in the explosion along with his nephews, Josh Napper, 27, and Cory Davis, 20. Two other family members survived the blast.

The generational ties were not unusual. Nor was the pride in working long hours in a hazardous job, a satisfaction that is core to Appalachia’s insular culture.

“He loved to work underground,” Timmy Davis Jr. told the Associated Press about his father. “He loved that place.”

The mine is set far back from Route 3, a two-lane road that twists through the mountains about 30 miles south of Charleston, the state capital.

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Officials here excoriated Massey Energy and its subsidiary, Performance Coal Co., for not releasing the names of all the victims to distraught family members.

Some families were furious because they learned their husbands, sons or other loved ones were among the dead from local safety officials or from news accounts, not from Massey Energy officials.

“I spoke to a widow of one of the first victims last night,” said Rep. Nick J. Rahall II (D-W.Va.). “She could not understand why she has not heard a word from the company yet.”

“I think it’s overdue,” Rahall added. “I think this contact is needed.”

“The families need to know,” Manchin agreed. “At this point, a minute seems like an hour, an hour seems like a day, and a day is an eternity. They need to grieve.”

President Obama offered his “deepest condolences” to the family and friends of those who had died, and said the federal government stood ready to assist the state if needed. He asked the audience at a post-Easter prayer breakfast at the White House to pray for the families and friends of those lost in the disaster.

The death toll is the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when a fire killed 27 workers at Emery Mining Corp.'s mine in Orangeville, Utah.

If the four missing men do not survive, the Upper Big Branch disaster would rank as the worst since a 1970 explosion killed 38 miners at the Finley Coal Co., in Hyden, Ky.

“Coal mining has gotten safer and safer; it’s still unsafe,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu told reporters in Washington. “It’s still dangerous business.”

david.zucchino@ latimes.com

bob.drogin@latimes.com

Kim Geiger reporting from Montcoal, W.Va., contributed to this report.


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