Lethal gases halt W.Va. mine rescue

At least 25 killed, 4 missing

rail cars tossed by explosion

April 07, 2010|By Tribune Newspapers

An underground explosion that killed at least 25 coal miners was so powerful that it tossed rail cars and twisted steel tracks, officials said Tuesday, as workers continued efforts to find four missing miners who might have survived the blast.

Crews worked feverishly Tuesday to carve an access road and drill three 1,000-foot ventilation shafts into the mountain to release the lethal buildup of methane gas and carbon monoxide that officials believe might 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 before 8 a.m. today, and perhaps much later, adding an agonizing wait to the heartbreak that already has devastated this Appalachian community in southern West Virginia.

Gov. Joe Manchin said rescuers hope 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 about 2 a.m. Tuesday.

But the 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."

Manchin said the first rescue teams had been stunned to see that the 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.

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

The 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.

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 past year.

"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 U.S. Labor Department. "We'll leave no stone unturned to get to the bottom of what went wrong."

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

He said most of the miners were unable to reach emergency escape routes or 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.

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.

"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 Caribbean cruise after 30 years of digging coal, according to 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 one 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.

Such generational ties are not unusual here. Neither is the pride in working long hours in a hazardous job, a satisfaction that is a key 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 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 Finley Coal Co., in Hyden, Ky.

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