TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va -- A coal mine explosion that might have been touched off by intense lightning yesterday trapped 13 miners underground here, setting off a rescue effort that continued into early this morning, authorities said.
The condition of the miners was unknown last night. The blast destroyed the mine's communication equipment, preventing authorities from contacting the miners.
Search and rescue teams could not enter the Sago Mine for close to 12 hours until dangerous levels of carbon monoxide were vented from the shaft. The miners inside had air-purifying equipment that could provide a few hours of clean air but no additional oxygen tanks, a co-worker said.
Company officials believe the trapped miners were about two miles inside the mine, about 260 feet below the surface. The rescue crew eventually entered the mine on foot and began removing rubble by hand, for fear of sparking another explosion. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration sent a rescue robot to the site, about 100 miles northeast of Charleston.
"You just have to hope that the explosions weren't of the magnitude that was horrific from the beginning." West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III said in an appearance on CNN. "There's always that hope and chance that they were able to go to part of the mine that still had safe air. There's places they can retreat in all these mines. They have catacombs."
Manchin's spokeswoman, Lara Ramsburg, said the blast might have been sparked by lightning from severe thunderstorms. But Roger Nicholson, general counsel for the mine's owner, International Coal Group, said it was not clear what set off the blast and there was no indication it was caused by methane.
Coal mine explosions are typically caused by buildups of methane, and the danger increases in the winter, when changes in barometric pressure can release pockets of the odorless, colorless and highly flammable gas.
Clifford Rice, 38, who lives about 200 yards from the mine, said he heard and saw the explosion about 6:30 a.m. yesterday as a strong thunder and lightning storm swept through the area.
"It was like a thousand-watt spotlight went off in the house." Rice said of the explosion. "We thought it was a bolt of lightning. It shook the house. It rattled the windows."
The Sago Mine, only recently reopened, has a single entrance, and the shaft winds its way for miles underground.
"If the miners are barricaded, as we hope they are, they would prepare themselves for rescue by rationing." said Gene Kitts, a senior vice president at ICG. The miners would probably have only their lunches and water on hand.
The blast occurred as the first shift of miners entered in two cars to resume production after the holiday, Ramsburg said.
"As they were heading in, the car in the back either heard or felt some type of explosion. They headed back out. The first car never made it back out." she said.
The 13 men in the first car were cut off by "a wall' of debris from the four men in the back car, who tried unsuccessfully to reach the missing miners, said Steve Milligan, deputy director of Upshur County's Office of Emergency Management.
About 200 co-workers and relatives of the trapped miners gathered at the Sago Baptist Church across from the mine to pray for their safety. Manchin, who met with the families for about 45 minutes, described them as "very prayerful' and "very hopeful."
"I told them I haven't given up hope." said Manchin, who said he lost an uncle and several high school buddies when 78 miners perished in a 1968 explosion in Farmington, W.Va. "And I hope they haven't given up. We all believe in miracles."
Judy Shackelford, 64, whose brother Terry Helms, a miner for 30 years, was among those trapped, sat outside the mine last night, wrapped in a blanket as a light rain fell. She said she and his son, daughter and fiancee would stay there until Helms was recovered.
"You get to imagining them in the mine." Shackelford said. "Are they hurt? Are they conscious? Are they scared? And then you hope. We're not leaving until my brother gets off that hill, one way or another."
The Rev. Roger Foster, pastor of the Good Shepherd Assembly of God church in nearby Elkins, said he was there to offer moral support to the families. "There are a lot of different emotions." Foster said. "A lot of crying. A lot of praying. The families seem to be pulling together."
But Foster, who once worked as a miner, said that as time goes by, the the chance of a positive outcome diminishes.
"I worked in the mines for 10 years myself." he said. "And you know, the longer they're in there, the less chance there is."
Anna McCoy said her husband, Randall, 27, was among those missing. She said he had worked at the mine for three years "but was looking to get out. It was too dangerous."