With air unsafe, mine rescue effort put off

Hope of finding four workers still alive wanes

At a candlelight vigil yesterday, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin hugged Pam Napper, whose son Josh was one of the 25 miners killed in a coal mine explosion Monday. The Nappers also lost two other family members in the blast. At a candlelight vigil yesterday, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin hugged Pam Napper, whose son Josh was one of the 25 miners killed in a coal mine explosion Monday. The Nappers also lost two other family members in the blast. (Jeff Gentner/Associated Press)
By Vicki Smith and Lawrence Messina
Associated Press / April 9, 2010

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MONTCOAL, W.Va. — A federal safety official said more air testing would be needed before rescue teams could head back into a West Virginia coal mine last night to look for four miners missing since an explosion killed 25 workers.

Kevin Stricklin, coal administrator from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said levels of noxious gases had dropped but not enough for the crews to reenter the Upper Big Branch mine about 30 miles south of Charleston.

He said sampling would continue. If levels failed to drop by ventilation, crews were planning to pump in nitrogen to neutralize the atmosphere. It was unclear why they didn’t start pumping in nitrogen sooner.

Rescuers were eager to resume the underground search in the slim hope that the men made it to one of the rescue chambers in the mine.

“We committed to the families we were going to get into the chambers within 96 hours and we’re doing everything in our power to do that,’’ Stricklin said.

Earlier in the day, searchers came within 500 feet of a rescue chamber where possible survivors may have taken refuge, but were told to abandon their mission because the explosive mix of gases had become too dangerous.

Chris Adkins, chief operating officer for mine owner Massey Energy Co, said rescue teams described seeing evidence of “a horrendous explosion and a lot of destruction.’’

Teams spent more than four hours in the morning working their way by railcar and on foot through the mine where 25 workers were killed Monday in the worst US mining disaster in more than two decades. When told to abandon their mission, team members were angry, but their safety was paramount, said Adkins.

Crews at the surface resumed drilling to get fresh air into the mine.

Governor Joe Manchin said last night that the levels were near those considered safe.

“We’re just moving as quickly as we can,’’ Manchin said. “We want to bring the loved ones back.’’

Rescue teams were headed first to the airtight chamber that has at least four days worth of food, water, and oxygen.

Adkins also said they may have found an alternate route that will allow them to get where they need to be faster when they can go back in.

Once that happens, rescuers will have to walk through an area officials have described as strewn with bodies, twisted railroad track, shattered concrete block walls, and vast amounts of dust. Each team member wears 30 pounds of breathing equipment, lugs first-aid equipment, and must try to see through total darkness with only a cap lamp to light the way.

Massey’s chief executive officer, Don Blankenship, continued to defend his company’s record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety.

“To some extent the fact that there were more survivors than those that are lost suggests that the mine was in pretty good shape relative to what mines would have been in the past and hopefully by today’s standards,’’ he said in an interview yesterday. There were 61 miners in Upper Big Branch when it was rocked by the blast.

The federal mine agency has appointed a team of investigators, and President Obama said yesterday that he has asked federal mine safety officials to report next week on what may have caused the blast.

Blankenship began using the social networking site Twitter to communicate about the disaster yesterday.

“Pray for the families and the rescue workers,’’ he tweeted. He also praised the rescue efforts and criticized what he called the “indignity of much of the media.’’

He told the Associated Press in an interview yesterday that the company would pay funeral expenses for the miners killed in the blast.

Despite the increasingly slim chance of finding anyone alive, Adkins said he considered yesterday’s effort a rescue mission.

“I still believe in God, I believe, and I’m not going to give up,’’ he said.