MONTCOAL, W.Va. – An explosion at a coal mine with a history of safety problems killed 25 workers and at least four others were missing early Tuesday more than a thousand feet underground in the worst U.S. mine disaster since 1984.
The chances of the four still being alive was not good, but the suspended rescue mission would continue after bore holes could be drilled to allow for toxic gas to be ventilated from Massey Energy Co.’s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine about 30 miles south of Charleston, state and federal safety officials said.
“It does not appear that any of the individuals made it to a rescue chamber,” Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said at a news conference. “The situation is dire.”
Earlier, Stricklin said officials hoped some of the missing survived the initial blast on Monday afternoon and were able to reach the airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for them to live for four days. However, rescue teams made it to one of two nearby and it was empty. The buildup of toxic methane gas levels — a constant problem at the mine — and of carbon monoxide prevented them from reaching other chambers, officials said.
A total of 29 miners were in the area when the blast happened, Stricklin said. Some may have died in the blast and others when they breathed in the gas-filled air, Stricklin said.
“Everybody’s just heartbroken over this and the impact on these families,” said mine safety director Joe Main, who planned to go to West Virginia.
State mining director Ron Wooten said though the situation does not seem promising to reach the missing alive, rescuers weren’t done.
“We haven’t given up hope at all,” he said.
It was the most people killed in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 died in a fire at Emery Mining Corp.’s mine in Orangeville, Utah. After a record low 34 deaths last year, Main said he and others believed coal mining had turned the corner on preventing fatal accidents.
Benny R. Willingham, 62, who was five weeks away from retiring, was among those who perished in West Virginia, said his sister-in-law Sheila Prillaman.
He had mined for 30 years, the last 17 with Massey, and planned to take his wife on a cruise to the Virgin Islands next month, she said.
“Benny was the type — he probably wouldn’t have stayed retired long,” Prillaman said. “He wasn’t much of a homebody.”
Prillaman said family members were angry because they learned of Willingham’s death after reading it on a list Massey posted, instead of being contacted by the company, which said it wouldn’t release names until next of kin were notified.
Though the cause of the blast was not known, the operation run by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co. has a history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane gas, safety officials said.
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 initially found nine workers, seven of whom were dead. Others were hurt or missing about a mile and a half inside the mine.
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, 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.
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. The violations also cover failing to follow the plan, allowing combustible coal dust to pile up, and having improper firefighting equipment.
Upper Big Branch has had three other fatalities in the last dozen years.
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.
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. 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 where 12 were killed in 2006.
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.
Rescuers trying to reach the trapped miners had found evidence that some workers took emergency oxygen supplies from a cache in the mine, Stricklin said.
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 network near the missing men was likely destroyed in the explosion.
Massey said the names of the dead and injured would not be released until next-of-kin were notified.
“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 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, most of whom work underground on different shifts.
“The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration will investigate this tragedy, and take action,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement. “Miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood.”