MONTCOAL, W.Va.—An explosion rocked a remote coal mine with a history of safety problems Monday, killing seven workers and trapping 19 others thousands of feet underground.
Rescuers converged on Massey Energy Co.'s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine where the blast occurred around 3 p.m. Though the cause of the blast was not known, the operation has a history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane gas, safety officials said.
Nine miners were leaving on a vehicle that takes them in and out of the long shaft, when a crew ahead of the them felt a blast of air and went back to investigate, said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
They found nine workers, seven of whom were dead. Two others were injured. Two other nine-person crews and a safety inspector who had been working alone were believed trapped, perhaps about a mile and a half underground, said Stricklin, an administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health. Officials do not believe that the roof collapsed.
Dozens of rescuers were at the scene about 30 miles south of Charleston, but it was unclear whether the mine was safe enough for them to enter and look for the trapped men.
"We want to assure the families of all the miners we are taking every action possible to locate and rescue those still missing," said Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who confirmed the number of dead and missing in a statement.
Distraught family members were briefed and taken to a Massey building off-limits to the media.
MSHA officials didn't yet know what caused the blast, but federal records say the Eagle coal seam releases up to 2 million cubic feet of methane gas into the mine every 24 hours, which is a large amount, said Dennis O'Dell, health and safety director for the United Mine Workers labor union.
Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining. The colorless, odorless gas is often sold to American consumers to heat homes and cook meals. In mines, giant fans are used to keep methane concentrations below certain levels. In 2006, 12 miners died in a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia. If concentrations are allowed to reach between 5 percent and 15 percent, the gas can explode with a spark roughly similar to the static charge created by walking across a carpet in winter.
In the past year, federal inspectors have cited Massey and fined the company more than $382,000 for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment at the mine run by subsidiary Performance Coal Co. The violations also cover failing to follow the plan, allowing combustible coal dust to pile up, and having improper firefighting equipment.
Two airtight rescue chambers near the blast site are stocked with enough food, water and air for the miners to survive four days. Another two chambers are a bit farther away. West Virginia requires all underground mines to have wireless communications and tracking systems designed to survive explosions and other disasters. However, Stricklin said much of the communications near the missing men were likely destroyed in the explosion.
The company did not provide details on the extent of the damage at the mine that has had three other fatalities in the last dozen years.
Blankenship said the names of the dead and injured would not be released until next-of-kin were notified.
One of the injured was in intensive care at Charleston Area Medical Center, said spokeswoman Elizabeth Pellegrin, who added that the hospital was preparing for other patients.
"West Virginians are tough, we will bind together," said U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, whose district includes where the mine is located.
The mine, which cannot be seen from the road, has 19 openings and roughly 7-foot ceilings. Inside, it's crisscrossed with railroad tracks used for hauling people and equipment. It is located in a swath of Raleigh and Boone counties that includes a string of mine operations in the heart of coal country. Along the main two-lane road lined with emergency vehicles Monday night are several plants where coal is prepared for shipment by train.
The seam produced 1.2 million tons of coal in 2009, according to the mine safety agency, and has about 200 employees, most of whom work underground on different shifts.
"If you're from here, you're part of a coal mining family," Grace Lafferty of nearby Harper told the Charleston Gazette. "You know a lot of people who work here. It takes your breath away, your heart drops and you have that empty feeling."
A bulk of the coal is removed with a machine called a longwall miner that uses a cutting head to move back and forth across the working face somewhat like a 1,000-foot-long deli slicer. Hydraulic roof supports shield the miners and equipment as the machines cut deeper into the mountain, with the roof in the mined-out areas caving in by design after workers move on, according to Massey's Web site.
Gov. Joe Manchin was out of town, but working to get back, according to his office. Chief of Staff Jim Spears went to the mine. President Barack Obama spoke Monday night with Manchin to express his condolences and to offer any assistance, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
Massey Energy is a publicly traded company based in Richmond, Va., that has 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee, according to the company's Web site. It ranks among the nation's top five coal producers and is among the industry's most profitable. It has a spotty safety record.
The federal mine safety administration fined Massey a then-record $1.5 million for 25 violations that inspectors concluded contributed to the deaths of two miners trapped in a fire at a different mine in January 2006. The company later settled a lawsuit naming it, several subsidiaries and Chief Executive Don Blankenship as defendants. Aracoma Coal Co. later paid $2.5 million in fines after the company pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges in the fire.
In each of the last three years, Massey has had multiple operations cited by MSHA as repeat violators of safety and health rules and ordered to improve their conditions. Upper Big Branch was not one of them.
The United Mine Workers said it has personnel nearby and would help non-union Massey if the company asks. The UMW said it also is ready to help families of workers at the mine. Massey is virulently non-union and CEO Blankenship's television set with a UMW fired bullet in it still sits in his office.
Last year, the number of miners killed on the job in the U.S. fell for a second straight year to 34, the fewest since officials began keeping records nearly a century ago. That was down from the previous low of 52 in 2008.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration documents show 18 of the deaths occurred in coal mines, down from 29 in 2008; and 16 were in gold, copper and other types of mines, down from 22 in 2008.
The deadliest year in recorded U.S. coal mining history was 1907, when 3,242 deaths were reported. That year, the nation's deadliest mine explosion killed 358 people near Monongah, W.Va.
Associated Press Writer Tim Huber in Charleston contributed to this report.