April 6, 2010 / 2:09 AM / 9 years ago

At least 25 dead in West Virginia mine disaster

MONTCOAL, West Virginia (Reuters) - Rescue crews moved giant drills to a West Virginia coal mine on Tuesday in hopes of boring deep inside to find four miners missing after an explosion that killed at least 25 of their co-workers in the worst U.S. mine disaster in a quarter century.

Jeanie Sanger (L) is comforted by Michelle McKinney outside the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, April 6, 2010. REUTERS/Mike Munden

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin said families of those missing are hoping for a miracle rescue following Monday’s explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine, owned by Massey Energy. A federal mining official said his agency will “leave no stone unturned” to determine what caused the disaster.

Efforts to reach victims were slowed to make sure deadly methane gas had not built up that would endanger rescuers at the mine, located 30 miles south of West Virginia’s capital Charleston, Manchin said.

“The drills are in place,” he said, but added: “Everyone’s in agreement ... that nothing can be proceeding with the rescue operation until we know it’s safe for miners to enter.”

Shares of Massey Energy closed down more than 10 percent on the New York Stock Exchange. Richmond, Virginia-based Massey is the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia, operating in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.

Analysts said Massey might suffer a short-term financial hit, but Wall Street was bullish on the company’s long-term ability to ramp up production to reap higher prices for steel-making coal.

Anxious families of the miners missing in the Montcoal, West Virginia mine have been told “nothing is really going to change between now and 8 a.m.” on Wednesday, Manchin said.

The families have not lost hope, Manchin said.

“The anxiety that every family member has is very hopeful that there may be a miracle, and one or all four of them could be found,” Manchin told CNN. “Everyone knows that we’re working against long odds. ... We need your prayers.”

The death toll makes it the deadliest U.S. mining disaster since 1984, when 27 miners died in a fire in Utah, according to the United States Mine Rescue Association.

‘HORRIFIC EXPLOSION’

Initial search crews, forced to turn back due to a build-up of methane and smoke, reported damage so severe that train rails in the mine “looked like they had been twisted like a pretzel,” Manchin said.

“It had to be an horrific explosion to cause that kind of damage,” he said.

Crews planned to drill four holes into the mine, he said. Workers had to plow a road to the mountainous site to position the drills at the mine. Rescuers were targeting an area some 1,100 feet below the surface, he said.

The governor called the disaster “a mammoth proportion explosion, a methane build-up,” although the official cause had not been determined.

“Something went very wrong here for us to have the magnitude of this explosion,” said Kevin Stricklin of the U.S. Mine and Safety Health Administration. “We’ll leave no stone unturned to get to the bottom and tell you exactly what was not going right here.”

In Washington, President Barack Obama said the federal government was ready to assist the rescue operation. “Pray for the safe return for the missing, the men and women who’ve put their lives on the line to save them, and the souls of those who’ve been lost in this tragic accident,” Obama said.

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.

THREE PREVIOUS DEATHS SINCE 1998

But 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. Two miners died in roof collapses in 1998 and 2001, and a third was electrocuted in 2003 when repairing an underground car.

Manchin confirmed that 25 miners were killed in Monday’s accident, two others were hospitalized and four were missing.

Eleven of the dead have been identified, and 14 of the dead were still inside the mine, he said.

Eric Martin, the son of one of the missing miners, told CNN: “It’s like I got hit in the gut, right there real hard.”

The mine, owned by Massey’s Performance Coal subsidiary, has two emergency chambers stocked with food, water and enough air to survive for four days, and rescuers hoped the missing miners had made their way there.

Michelle McKenney, daughter of Benny Willingham, who was among those killed, said she was angry at Massey for not contacting relatives.

“No one from Massey has called my mother or any of us children or his mother. He still has a mother that is home grieving,” she said.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship said the company was “taking every action to locate and rescue those still missing.”

Ellen Smith, the editor of Mine Safety and Health News, said Upper Big Branch Mine had been repeatedly cited for safety violations going back years and continuing this year.

Slideshow (17 Images)

The Montcoal disaster occurred just as China was celebrating the rescue of more than 100 miners from a flooded coal mine. The miners endured more than a week underground.

Five miners died in the Chinese mine in Xiangning, in the northern province of Shanxi, and 33 were still missing.

In the worst coal mine disaster in U.S. history, 362 miners died in an explosion in 1906 in West Virginia’s Monongah mine.

Additional reporting by Jon Hurdle and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Ellen Wulfhorst; Editing by Mark Egan and Will Dunham

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