Four missing miners found dead

The remains of all four miners missing from the devastating explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine were found by rescue crews late Friday night, ending a desperate, four-day search for men who authorities now say were killed by the blast Monday afternoon.

“We did not receive the miracle we prayed for,” West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III said at a news conference at 12:30 a.m. Eastern time.

The discovery of the four bodies brings the total death toll from the explosion Monday at the mine to 29, making it the worst mining disaster in nearly 40 years.

Authorities said they are now focusing on bringing out all 22 bodies still inside. Seven bodies were recovered after the explosion.

Rescue commanders had battled combustible and poisonous gases, a rainstorm that expanded those gases, two bore holes that missed their marks, a fire and noxious smoke. And that was after bulldozers had to carve a road to the top of a mountain to bring in rescue equipment.

The first plan was to drill two bore holes to ventilate gases. But that process was slow, and the second bore hole missed its target and was never used.

A backup plan was devised to pump nitrogen into the mine to neutralize the gases in case the ventilation plan failed. But there was not enough nitrogen on hand, prompting emergency leaders to scramble for alternatives.

One was to drill yet another bore hole to lower a camera into the mine to get a look at the chamber, but that drill also went off course.

Asked why nitrogen was not used earlier, Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, replied: “We did not have the nitrogen available to us when the [gas] readings started going into the explosive range.”

He said federal mine safety authorities discussed the option for two days with mine owner Massey Energy Co.

J. Christopher Adkins, Massey chief operating officer, said nitrogen supplies were nearby but getting the gas to the mountaintop site risked blocking the only available road during rescue operations.

Once sufficient nitrogen supplies were available Friday morning, emergency crews were able to lower dangerous gas levels enough to allow rescue crews to make progress. The nitrogen also extinguished the fire, which had slowed rescue efforts.

Stricklin said that the four missing miners could have survived only if they were able to enter a refuge chamber, which provides enough food, water and oxygen to sustain 15 men for four days.

Rescue workers got deep enough into the mine early Friday to determine that no miners had reached one of two possible rescue chambers.

Crews were sent underground once again when nitrogen pumped into the mine smothered the fire and neutralized the gases.

Stricklin and the governor have been the public faces of the disaster, standing before television cameras several times a day for updates on a situation that has become more tenuous with every passing hour.

Saturday morning, Stricklin struggled to hold back tears as he explained to reporters how the miners were found. The governor was subdued, his voice barely audible as he told reporters, “The journey has ended.”

The mine, operated by Massey Energy Co., was shut down temporarily for safety violations 29 times last year, some of them for ventilation infractions, Stricklin said. Massey was cited for 515 safety violations at the mine in 2009 and 124 so far this year.

An investigation has been ordered, but Stricklin said it will not begin in earnest until the rescue and recovery is completed.

The bodies of 22 miners remain inside the badly damaged mine.

Once recovery efforts begin, Stricklin said, the positions of all remains will be noted on maps to assist investigators.

Extra nitrogen tankers were brought to the mine Friday night to ensure that any sudden rise in methane levels doesn’t impede the investigation.

President Obama ordered federal mine safety officials to report next week on the possible cause of the explosion and on recommendations for improving safety enforcement.

The cause of the explosion has not been determined, but methane gas is considered a likely cause.