MONTCOAL, W.Va. – Rescuers held out slim hope Tuesday that four missing coal miners might have survived when a mine repeatedly cited for improperly venting methane gas exploded, killing 25 people in the country’s deadliest underground disaster in a quarter-century.

A day after the blast in southern West Virginia, desperate rescuers began boring into the mine in hopes of releasing poisonous gases so crews could search for the men. But Gov. Joe Manchin said it could be midday today before much progress is made.

“I don’t want to give anybody any false hope, but by golly, if I’m on that side of the table, and that’s my father or my brother or my uncle or my cousins, I’m going to have hope,” he said.

The missing miners might have been able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for four days. But rescue teams checked one of two chambers nearby, and it was empty. The buildup of gases prevented them from reaching the second chamber. Officials said they were 90 percent sure of the miners’ location.

On Tuesday, bulldozers carved an access road to make way for drilling crews, who planned to dig four shafts to vent methane, a highly combustible gas that accumulates naturally in coal mines, and carbon monoxide from the blast site about 1,000 feet beneath the surface.

Crews began drilling two side-by-side holes that start at 12 inches in diameter and narrow to 6 inches. They hoped to open more holes overnight.

Massey Energy Co., owner of the Upper Big Branch mine, was fined more than $382,000 in the past year for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment. The company’s chief executive said the mine was not unsafe, but federal regulators planned to review its many violations.

In an area where coal is king, people anxiously awaited word on the missing miners. One resident hung a “Praying 4 Our Miners” banner outside a home.

At Libby’s City Grill in nearby Whitesville, the accident was the talk at every breakfast table. Owner James Scott was grieving his own loss — his 58-year-old uncle, Deward Scott of Montcoal, was among the dead.

Neither his uncle nor his customers ever discussed work much.

“I never heard anyone say anything about the mine, good or bad,” James Scott said. “You just don’t talk about it.”

Diana Davis said her husband, Timmy, 51, died in the explosion along with his nephews Josh Napper, 27, and Cory Davis, 20.

The elder Davis’ son, Timmy Davis Jr., said his father was passionate about the outdoors and the mines. “He loved to work underground,” the younger Davis said. “He loved that place.” Two other family members survived the blast, he said.

On Tuesday night, about 50 mourners packed the creaky pews of St. Joseph Catholic Church, a modest building on a lonely road a few miles from the mine. As a flute played, and congregants prayed for the four missing miners, they also did their best to belt out hymns.

“It’s such a terrible time for West Virginia, but it’s so important to ask for God’s help,” said Bishop Michael J. Bransfield. “It demands our cares, and it demands our prayers.”

At the time of the explosion, 61 miners were in the mine, about 30 miles south of Charleston.

“Before you knew it, it was just like your ears stopped up. You couldn’t hear. And the next thing you know, it’s just like you’re just right in the middle of a tornado,” miner Steve Smith, who heard the explosion but was able to escape, told ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

Nine miners were leaving on a vehicle that takes them in and out of the mine’s long shaft when a crew ahead of them felt a blast of air and went back to investigate, said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The chief executive of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, said Tuesday that a carbon monoxide warning was the first sign of trouble. Mine crews were checking on the alarm when they discovered an explosion had occurred.

“I don’t know that we know what happened,” he said.

Some may have been killed by the blast, and others when they inhaled the toxic gases, Stricklin said.

He described how the rescue teams gradually descended through a long shaft where the miners were operating a huge machine that carves coal from the walls. He said the teams increasingly encountered debris from the mine’s ventilation system and other materials.

Federal officials decided to call off the rescue after high methane gas readings were obtained in the far reaches of the mine. “The decision was that you can’t risk 40 rescue workers,” Blankenship said.

Stricklin said after the mine is safe to enter, rescue teams will try to reach a long section about 20 feet wide with barely enough room to stand.

“There’s so much dirt and dust and everything is so dark that it’s very easy, as hard as it may seem to any of us outside in this room, to walk by a body,” Stricklin said.

Seven bodies have been recovered and identified. The names of the remaining miners were not released, but the AP was able to identify six of them through family members. Two injured miners were being treated at hospitals. Their names weren’t released either.

Some grieving relatives were angry because they learned their loved ones were among the dead from government officials, not from Massey Energy executives.

Michelle McKinney found out from a local official at a nearby school that her father, Benny R. Willingham, 61, was among the dead. He was due to retire in five weeks after 30 years of mining.

“These guys, they took a chance every day to work” to make the mining company grow, she said. And company officials “couldn’t even call us.”

Blankenship said he attended briefings with family members but largely left contact to the federal mine safety and Massey representatives. He said he was in the room when relatives were notified of the full extent of the tragedy, but the scene was so emotional that he did not interact with them.

Manchin said a Massey official apologized to family members Tuesday for not being notified of the deaths.

The death toll was the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 people died in a fire at Emery Mining Corp.’s mine in Orangeville, Utah. If the four missing bring the total to 29, it would be the most killed in a U.S. coal mine since a 1970 blast killed 38 at Finley Coal Co. in Hyden, Ky.

Blankenship said the mine was “not thought to be unsafe by the agencies or the company.”

“I think that what they (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) said is, ‘You know, there’s been a lot of debate about the ventilation.’ At the times the mine operates and men are in the mine, it complies with whatever the federal and state agencies have agreed.”

Stricklin said he was concerned about an initial review of the more serious violations, which indicated that “the operator was aware of some of these conditions.”


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.