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Hope Dims for Missing West Virginia Miners After Large Blast

April 6, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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The search for four missing miners was halted because of dangerous conditions underground Tuesday, following a massive explosion that claimed 25 lives in West Virginia. Gwen Ifill reports on the rescue effort in the deadliest U.S. mining disaster in 26 years.
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GWEN IFILL: Officials don’t know whether four missing miners at a West Virginia coal mine are still alive, and the effort to find them will take time. The explosion, blamed on methane gas, killed at least 25 other miners.

Rescuers were forced to call off the recovery operation early this morning, as flammable gases began filling the mine. Hope remains dim for the missing miners, but crews today drilled holes deep into the earth to release those gases and make it safe for searchers to return.

West Virginia’s Governor Joe Manchin said that may not happen before tomorrow evening. But families of the missing were still hopeful.

GOV. JOE MANCHIN, D-W.Va.: They still hold out for that miracle for the four that are still missing. But they understand the challenge that we have and the horrific nature of this blast. And the situation that we’re dealing with is very tough.

GWEN IFILL: The explosion tore through the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, about 30 miles from the state capital in Charleston, around 3:00 yesterday afternoon.

Investigators say the blast, which caused the nation’s deadliest mine disaster in more than a quarter-century, erupted a mile-and-a-half from one of the mine’s entrances. Some miners who were leaving from their afternoon shift said they felt the explosion’s force directly behind them.

STEVE SMITH, miner: Before you knew it, it was just like your — your ears are stopped up. You couldn’t hear. And next thing you know, you’re just like right in the middle of a tornado.

GWEN IFILL: As emergency vehicles rushed to the scene, family members began to get calls.

WOMAN: I was just start getting all these phone calls. They told me that — they asked me if (INAUDIBLE) was working the evening or day. That’s all they said. And when I told them the evening, they told me there had been an explosion.

GWEN IFILL: At nightfall, members of this small mining community held a vigil at a local church. Meanwhile, rescuers reached safety chambers where stockpiles of food, water and oxygen are stored to sustain miners for up to four days.

Rescuers found one such chamber empty, but quickly retreated, as a mix of methane and carbon monoxide began to build up within the mine.

This morning, at an Easter prayer breakfast at the White House, the president offered his condolences and support.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There are rescue teams that are searching tirelessly and courageously to find them.

I spoke with Governor Manchin of West Virginia last night and told him that the federal government stands ready to offer whatever assistance is needed in this rescue effort.

GWEN IFILL: The Web site of Massey Energy Company, the mine’s operator, boasts of its 2009 safety record. But the company was hit with nearly $900,000 in fines for 458 safety violations last year alone. And the company paid out $4.2 million in penalties last year following a 2006 fire at Massey’s Aracoma mine, also in West Virginia.

A federal Mine Safety and Health Administration official said this afternoon that yesterday’s blast should have been preventable.

KEVIN STRICKLIN, administrator for coal mine safety and health, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration: We put minimum parameters in place that a mine operator would need to follow to ensure that he has enough air and enough ventilation to keep an explosion from occurring, not only an explosion, an ignition.

And it’s quite evident that something went very wrong here for us to have the magnitude of this explosion. So, it’s apparent that something was wrong. And I would just ask to give us an opportunity to conduct a full investigation. And we will — we will leave no stone unturned.

GWEN IFILL: Late this afternoon, Senator Jay Rockefeller spoke in West Virginia.

SEN. JAY ROCKEFELLER, D-W.Va.: A lot of us worked on the Mine Act in 1977, in 1997. There hadn’t been any — or 2007 — there hadn’t been any — any federal mine regulations or statutes in 30 years.

And I was just rereading that statute as I was coming over. And there are some — there are some empty places in there. So, we have got to find a way to bring closure, not just to the grief of these families, but to the — sometimes, the problems that they face, but they don’t know that they face it, by laws that — that allow situations to continue.

GWEN IFILL: West Virginia was also the site of a similar tragedy four years ago. That’s when 12 miners were killed in a methane explosion at the Sago mine 130 miles away.

Since then, federal regulators have installed new safety requirements, including the sealed safety chambers and additional gas monitoring. Mine safety has improved in the U.S. dramatically. Since the passage of the 1977 Mine Act, fatalities dropped from 272 deaths that year to a record low of 35 in 2009.