25 dead in W.Va. mine blast, rescue preparation under way for four missing
MONTCOAL, W.Va. (AP) -- A huge underground explosion blamed on methane gas killed 25 coal miners in the worst U.S. mining disaster since 1984, and rescuers today began a dangerous and possibly futile attempt to rescue four others still missing.
Crews were bulldozing an access road so they could drill 1,000 feet into the earth to try to find the missing miners feared dead after the Monday afternoon blast at a mine with a history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane.
Rescuers were being held back by poison gases that accumulated near the blast site, about 1.5 miles from the entrance to Massey Energy Co.'s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine.
Rescuers had to create an access road above it before they could begin drilling three shafts to release methane and carbon monoxide, Gov. Joe Manchin said at an early morning news briefing today. Drilling and ensuring rescuers can safely go in could take up to 12 hours, meaning the search was unlikely to resume before 6 p.m. today.
"It's going to be a long day and we're not going to have a lot of information until we can get the first hole through," Manchin said.
It had already been a long day for grieving relatives, some angry because they found out their loved ones were among the dead from government officials or a company Web site, not from Massey Energy executives.
"They're supposed to be a big company," said Michelle McKinney, who found out from a local official at a nearby school that her 62-year-old father, Benny R. Willingham, died in the blast. "These guys, they took a chance every day to work and make them big. And they couldn't even call us."
McKinney said her husband is a miner too and her 16-year-old son doesn't want him to go back to work. Willingham, who had mined for 30 years, the last 17 with Massey, was just five weeks from retiring and planned to take his wife on a cruise to the Virgin Islands next month.
Three members of the same family were also among the dead. Diana Davis said her husband, Timmy Davis, 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 brother, Cody Davis, and an uncle, Tommy Davis, were also at the mine at the time and survived the blast. He said his brother was taking it particularly hard because he and their father were best friends.
Timmy Davis Jr. described his dad as passionate about the outdoors and the mines.
"He loved to work underground," the younger Davis said. "He loved that place."
President Barack Obama offered his condolences today at an Easter prayer breakfast in Washington and said the federal government is ready to assist with whatever the state needs. He also asked the audience to pray for those lost in what he called a tragic accident.
Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the situation looked grim for the missing miners.
"All we have left is hope, and we're going to continue to do what we can," he said.
Officials hoped the four miners still unaccounted for were able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for them to live for four days, but rescue teams checked one of two such chambers nearby and it was empty. The buildup of gases prevented teams from reaching other chambers, officials said.
A total of 31 miners were in the area during a shift change when the explosion rocked 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."
Some of those killed may have died in the blast and others when they breathed in the gas-filled air, Stricklin said. Eleven bodies had been recovered and identified, but the other 14 have not. Names weren't released publicly..
He said investigators still don't know what ignited the blast, but methane likely played a part.
The death toll is the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 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. mine since a 1970 explosion killed 38 at Finley Coal Co., in Hyden, Ky.