Rescuers back underground in search for four missing miners

Four rescue crews made their way into the Upper Big Branch mine just before 5 a.m. Eastern time Thursday in an attempt to reach four miners unaccounted for since the devastating explosion that killed 25 coworkers Monday, Gov. Joe Manchin III told reporters.

“We are in full recovery mode,” Manchin said at an early morning news conference. “They are advancing. They will move as rapidly as they possibly can.”

Once rescue crews are deep inside the mine, they will decide whether to also try to recover the bodies of 18 miners near the two locations where officials hope the four missing miners will be found.

Four teams of eight men each are riding small rail cars the first three miles into the mine. They will have to walk the final two miles or so, slowing the process, authorities said.

The rescue crews will attempt to reach two airtight safety chambers, about 2,500 feet apart, which officials hope the miners were able to enter if they survived the explosion. Three miners are believed to be in or near one chamber, and the fourth miner in or near another.

The chambers contain enough food, water and oxygen to sustain miners for at least four days. Families “are very hopeful, very prayerful, that we can put a finality to this today,” Manchin said. “They want to move on.”

The governor said he hoped to have answers from the crews by noon. The rescue teams are in radio contact with an above-ground command center.

It could take the teams two to three hours to reach the chambers, depending on the amount of debris they encounter, officials said. Each crew member is carrying about 30 pounds of gear and breathing apparatus.

Manchin said many family members have remained at mine offices since shortly after the explosion rocked the complex Monday. Between 50 and 100 family members were still there Thursday, meeting with authorities every few hours.

“I finally sensed some relief this morning that closure is getting near,” the governor said.

Rescue operations were halted late Monday after dangerous levels of deadly carbon monoxide and highly combustible methane were detected. The rescue effort resumed after tests of air samples from a bore hole drilled 1,100 feet from the top of the mine found conditions safe enough for teams to enter, said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Mine safety authorities have warned family members that chances are slim for finding anyone alive.

“The odds are not in our favor because of the horrendous blast we had,” Strickliin said.

Officials said the explosion occurred at 3:02 p.m. Monday as 31 miners were coming off the day shift. The blast knocked out lights, communications and ventilation fans, and created a windstorm that roared up shafts to the surface, shooting rocks, dirt and debris into the air.

After the blast subsided, several miners rushed inside and found six men dead and three injured; one of the injured later died. The other two remain hospitalized after the nation’s deadliest coal mining accident in more than a quarter-century. One is in intensive care, Manchin said. The other is expected to be released from a hospital soon.

The names of the four missing miners have not been released.

The cause of the explosion is undetermined, although the mine owner, Massey Energy Co., has come under increasing fire for a spotty record of safety operations at Upper Big Branch, including 10 citations this year for inadequate ventilation of explosive gases.

Over the past year, federal safety inspectors fined the company more than $382,000 for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment at the mine.

The company was cited for failing to follow its safety plan, allowing combustible coal dust to accumulate and having improper firefighting equipment.

Three workers have been killed at the mine in the past 12 years. A worker was electrocuted in 2003, another died after a roof collapse in 2001 and a third died when a beam collapsed in 1998.

The mine was cited for two safety violations Monday, the day of the disaster. But Stricklin said he was “very confident” that the infractions played no role in causing the explosion because they occurred several miles from the blast site.