April 7, 2010 / 12:21 PM / in 8 years

Poison gas hampers rescue effort at West Virginia mine

MONTCOAL, West Virginia (Reuters) - High levels of poisonous gases stopped rescuers on Wednesday from venturing inside a West Virginia coal mine to reach four miners missing since an explosion killed 25 others in the largest U.S. mine disaster in a quarter century.

Massey Energy workers Maurice Blanchette, Jimmy Shortridge, Brandon Waddell and Andrew Lucas, (L-R), take a break from drilling efforts in Montcoal, West Virginia, April 7, 2010. REUTERS/Jeff Gentner/Pool

Rescue crews planned to lower cameras inside Upper Big Branch Mine to see if the missing miners reached an underground refuge chamber, which was their only hope for survival due to the toxic gases, authorities said.

“We’re hoping that someone had the ability, and we have no way of knowing this, to get to that chamber. That would be the only way that any individual could survive,” said Kevin Stricklin of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration at a news briefing.

Rescuers were drilling boreholes down 1,100 feet to vent the mine of noxious gases but the high level of carbon monoxide from below was hampering drillers working at the surface, Stricklin said.

Until the gases could be cleared, it was too dangerous for rescuers to enter the mine, authorities said. Rescuers turned back on Monday due to gases.

The blast in the Montcoal mine, owned by Massey Energy, killed 25 miners. Eleven bodies have been identified but 14 are still in the mine, along with the four missing.

Rescuers have found no evidence the four are still alive.

“We just have hope,” Stricklin said.

Three of the miners may be in a rescue chamber equipped with several days worth of food, water and air, authorities said. The fourth man is thought to be nearby.

Family members, while anxious, understood if the miners reached the chamber they would have supplies to last through the pace of the rescue effort, Governor Joe Manchin said.

“That slither of hope that we have, or the miracle, is if any of our miners that are unaccounted for could have gotten into the chamber, and we know if they did then we’re fine within the time limit we have to work within,” he said.

Testing at a surface borehole found 14,000 parts per million of carbon monoxide and 3 percent methane, both lethal gases. The maximum safe limits in a mine are 50 parts per million of carbon monoxide and 1 percent methane, Stricklin said.

“We’re dealing with numbers that are way above and beyond what we typically see in a mine,” he said, adding, “The numbers don’t surprise me.

A crime scene search unit enters the main entrance to Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, April 7, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Munden

“These are typical numbers after an explosion,” he said.

Two workers injured in Monday’s blast were hospitalized, one in serious condition, authorities said.

In 2006, a miner was rescued from a coal mine in Sago, West Virginia, nearly 42 hours after a blast killed 12 co-workers. The reading at Sago was 11,000 parts per million of carbon monoxide, the governor said.

Shares of Massey Energy, the largest coal producer in the Central Appalachia mountain region, closed down almost 7 percent on the New York Stock Exchange. Analysts predicted long-term financial health for Massey despite the setback.

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Massey said the bodies of seven miners had been removed from the mine, located 30 miles south of the state capital Charleston.

While the cause of the explosion has not been determined, the buildup of combustible methane gas is often cited in mine blasts.

Questions have been raised by experts and observers about Massey’s safety record and laws governing the mining industry. Mining has always been dangerous, but 2009 was the safest ever for U.S. miners, with 34 deaths, according to federal data, 18 fewer than 2008.

Massey’s accident rate fell to an all-time low in 2009, the sixth consecutive year its safety record was stronger than the industry average, the company said on its website.

But the Upper Big Branch Mine has had three fatalities since 1998 and has a worse than average injury rate over the last 10 years, according to federal records, which also show it has been cited for more than 100 safety violations this year.

The company received two citations for safety violations from the Mine Safety and Health Administration on Monday, but it is unclear if that was before or after the explosion.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration has appointed a team to investigate the blast.

“Twenty-five hard-working men died unnecessarily,” said Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis. “The very best way we can honor them is to do our job. (The) investigation team is committed to finding out what happened, and we will take action.”

The Upper Branch Mine blast is the country’s deadliest mining disaster since 1984, when 27 miners died in a fire in Utah. West Virginia was home to the worst U.S. coal mine disaster, when 362 miners died at the Monongah mine in 1906.

Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst and Michelle Nichols, editing by Philip Barbara

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