25 Dead in WV Mine Explosion

By LAWRENCE MESSINA
Associated Press Writer
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 on Tuesday 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 release gases and make it safe to try to
find the missing miners. They were 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.
They had to create an access road above it before they could
begin drilling four shafts to release methane and carbon monoxide.
Gov. Joe Manchin said at a news briefing Tuesday that it could be
Wednesday night before the first hole is drilled.
“It’s a slow process,” Manchin said. “It’s just going to be a
slow process.”
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.
U.S. Rep. Nick Rayhall, D-W.Va., said at a press briefing
Wednesday that Massey should have been in better contact with
families.
Three members of the same family were 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 at an Easter
prayer breakfast in Washington on Tuesday 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.
“There’s always danger. There’s so many ways you can get hurt,
or your life taken,” said Gary Williams, a miner and pastor of New
Life Assembly, a church near the southern West Virginia mine.
“It’s not something you dread every day, but there’s always that
danger. But for this area, it’s the only way you’re going to make a
living.”
Though the situation looked bleak, Manchin said miracles can
happen and pointed to the 2006 Sago Mine explosion that killed 12.
Crews found miner Randal McCloy Jr. alive after he was trapped for
more than 40 hours in an atmosphere poisoned with carbon monoxide.
In Monday’s blast, nine miners were leaving on a vehicle that
takes them in and out of the mine’s long shaft when a crew ahead of
them felt a blast of air and went back to investigate, Stricklin
said.
They found seven workers dead. Others were hurt or missing about
a mile and a half inside the mine, though there was some confusion
over how many. Others made it out.
In a statement early Tuesday, Massey Chairman and CEO Don
Blankenship offered his condolences to the families of the dead.
Massey Energy, a publicly traded company based in Richmond, Va.,
has 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia,
eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee. It ranks among
the nation’s top five coal producers and is among the industry’s
most profitable. It has a spotty safety record.
In the past year, federal inspectors fined the company more than
$382,000 for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation
plan and equipment at Upper Big Branch.
Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining, and federal
records say the Eagle coal seam releases up to 2 million cubic feet
of methane gas into the Upper Big Branch mine every 24 hours, which
is a large amount, said Dennis O’Dell, health and safety director
for the United Mine Workers labor union.
In mines, giant fans are used to keep the colorless, odorless
gas concentrations below certain levels. If concentrations are
allowed to build up, the gas can explode with a spark roughly
similar to the static charge created by walking across a carpet in
winter, as at the Sago mine, also in West Virginia.
Since then, federal and state regulators have required mine
operators to store extra oxygen supplies. Upper Big Branch uses
containers that can generate about an hour of breathable air, and
all miners carry a container on their belts besides the stockpiles
inside the mine. Upper Big Branch has had three other fatalities in
the last dozen years.
Upper Big Branch 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 mine-laced swath of
Raleigh and Boone counties that is the heart of West Virginia’s
coal country.
The seam produced 1.2 million tons of coal in 2009, according to
the mine safety agency, and has about 200 employees.

Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed, Vicki Smith, Tom Breen
and Tim Huber in West Virginia and Sam Hananel in Washington
contributed to this report.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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