Two rescue teams enter W.Va. mine

Two rescue teams went underground into the wrecked Upper Big Branch mine early Friday in a desperate attempt to find four miners still missing after Monday’s devastating explosion, which killed 25 workers.

Authorities planned to pump nitrogen into a section of the mine to render dangerous gases inert and prevent another explosion as rescue crews inched forward. About the same time, recovery crews would attempt to find and remove the bodies of 18 miners killed in the worst coal mine disaster in a quarter-century.

Hopeful that rescue crews would find the missing miners alive inside two air-tight rescue chambers, the teams carried four additional oxygen devices. The effort was part of what a state mine safety official, Ron Wooten, called “a mad dash” to meet a 96-hour deadline that expires Friday afternoon.

The rescue chambers contain enough food, water and oxygen to sustain 15 miners for at least 96 hours, or four days. If fewer miners were inside, the supplies should last longer, but officials said they didn’t want to take any chances.

“We committed to the families that we wanted to get into the chambers within 96 hours -- and we’re trying to do everything in our power to do that without taking a chance on the rescue teams,” said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III said families of the miners “are relieved knowing this process has started in which the end is near.” He said it would take the rescue teams about an hour and a half to reach the first rescue chamber, and another 90 minutes or more to reach the second chamber about 2,000 feet away.

If the missing miners are not found alive, the mission would become a recovery effort to return the remains to families.

“It’s going to be a long process with a lot of caring work,” Stricklin said. “We have got to respect the bodies.”

The concentration of highly combustible methane and deadly carbon monoxide in the badly damaged mine delayed the rescue attempt earlier Thursday. Rescue crews were withdrawn shortly after the explosion and again Thursday morning.

Stricklin said nitrogen is a proven method of controlling fires and explosions. Asked why it was not used earlier, he replied, “We did not have the nitrogen available to us when the readings starting going into the explosive range.”

An official of Massey Energy Co., the mine operator, said earlier Thursday that nitrogen supplies were nearby, but getting the gas to the mountaintop site risked blocking the only road during rescue operations.

Rescue teams got within 500 feet of one of the airtight chambers Thursday morning before the gases forced them to retreat. Officials hope the missing miners were able to take refuge if they survived the explosion. Three are believed to be in or near one chamber, and the fourth in or near another about 2,500 feet away.

The four rescue teams of eight men each were in the mine more than four hours, traveling about four miles on small rail cars and on foot. Interior lights aren’t working, forcing searchers to rely on cap lamps in the damp darkness.

Rescue crews may be able to move faster on their third attempt because they discovered a new route that will allow them to travel much of the 4 1/2 -mile distance on small four-wheeler-type vehicles, said J. Christopher Adkins, chief operating officer of Massey Energy.

“It won’t be nearly as strenuous as it was when we first initially went in there,” he said.

Adkins said a drop in barometric pressure due to rainy weather raised the concentration of highly explosive methane in the mine during the morning rescue attempt.

“The barometer dropped and we started seeing the methane pick up in the borehole that we’ve got drilled down there . . . to detect the air,” Adkins said.

Because the surface of coal absorbs methane, a drop in barometric pressure means that more methane is released into a mine’s atmosphere, said Christopher Bise, a mining engineer at West Virginia University. The effect is much like reducing pressure in a soda bottle, which pulls carbon dioxide out of the soda.

Manchin said many family members have remained at mine offices since shortly after Monday’s explosion. Fifty to 100 were still there Thursday.

The families “understand that if we have any hope of survival and they’re in the rescue chamber, they’re still OK,” Manchin said. “I mean, that’s the sliver of hope we have. And it’s a long shot.”

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.

Several miners rushed inside and found six men dead and three injured, one of whom later died. One miner remains in intensive care, Manchin said. The other was released from a hospital Thursday, the Associated Press reported.

Adkins said that the rescue crews were “very angry” about being told to leave the mine Thursday morning, and that officials had urged them to get some sleep.

“They are running on adrenaline right now,” he said.


Times staff writer Thomas H. Maugh II in Los Angeles contributed to this report.