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West Virginia Families Clinging to ‘Sliver of Hope’

April 7, 2010 at 12:00 AM EST
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Crews continued to drill holes to vent explosive gasses out of a mine in West Virginia where four miners are still missing. Jim Lehrer gets an update from NPR reporter Frank Langfitt on the scene about the search efforts and questions about the mine's safety record.
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JIM LEHRER: The Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia remained the scene of anxious activity today. Rescuers drilled holes, hoping to vent poisonous gases.

Before dawn, a massive drill reached the section of the underground complex where rescuers believe four miners may still be trapped.

MIKE SNELLING, vice president of surface operations, Massey Energy Company: We have one drill currently in operation that’s drilled down about 560 feet. Right next to that, we have another drill hole that’s already been drilled and in place. And it’s about 1,100 feet deep.

JIM LEHRER: This afternoon, the crews worked on drilling two more holes, hoping to clear the air in the mine, so that rescue teams could enter.

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin said it’s still possible the missing men may have found refuge in an airtight safety chamber after Monday’s explosion that killed 25 others.

GOV. JOE MANCHIN, D-W.Va.: As a family member, you can imagine the sliver of hope we have is that the four would be there, three, two, one. That’s the sliver of hope that we have. And they know the odds are not in our favor, because of the horrificness of — and the horrendous blast that we had. But, with that, that’s — that’s what we’re still holding on to.

JIM LEHRER: A top official with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said, when rescue teams do get back into the mine, the search could take hours.

KEVIN STRICKLIN, administrator for coal mine Safety and health, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration: It’s a lot of darkness. I mean, there’s a lot of coal dust that has turned the surfaces black. And, if you shined your light, it’s very difficult seeing. In addition, there’s a dust covering over just about anything that you would come across in the coal mine.

JIM LEHRER: Monday’s blast took place some 30 miles from the state capital, Charleston, shaking the small mining community of Montcoal, West Virginia.

WOMAN: My heart just hurts for those people whose men are still in that mine.

JIM LEHRER: The Upper Big Branch disaster is already the deadliest U.S. mine accident since 1984.

Timmy Davis Jr. lost two cousins and his father.

TIMMY DAVIS JR., relative of victims: He just loved his job. I mean, that’s where — where he liked being at. If he would have made it out, he would still be here. He would go back tomorrow.

MAN: For the families and friends who suffer so much right now…

JIM LEHRER: As the men and women here continued to pray for loved ones, the Mine Safety and Health Administration assembled a special team to investigate what happened and why.

The mine’s operator, Massey Energy Company, had been cited for numerous safety violations at the Upper Big Branch mine. There were more than 50 this last March alone and 1,300 since 2005.

Massey CEO Don Blankenship conceded that number was above the norm.

DON BLANKENSHIP, chairman, President & CEO, Massey Energy: … mine has had more violations than some of the others. It hasn’t had a lost time accident until these fatals this year. And this incident, which is, you know, an explosion of some sort that we’re not sure what happened yet, we don’t really know what to say about it.

JIM LEHRER: The federal government levied more than $1 million in penalties against Massey last year alone. The company has only paid 16 percent of that amount. It’s contesting the rest.

And we get more now from the disaster scene from Frank Langfitt of National Public Radio.

Frank, first of all, there has just been news that has moved down the wire — moved off the wires that it turns out that the federal officials had cited Massey Energy with two violations on the day of the blast itself, according to these reports from the wires.

Can you tell us anything about that?

FRANK LANGFITT, National Public Radio: Well, one of the things that a lot of people are talking about is the record of the mine in the last few months.

A lot of this seems to be focusing on the ventilation, in terms of keeping the methane levels from getting too high and coal dust levels from getting too high. Recently, there have been several sources who — familiar with the mine who have said that, as recently as two or three months ago, they were evacuating the mine because methane was getting too high.

I spoke to a family member of someone who had lost a loved one in the mine. She told me that. The New York Times talked to a couple miners who had said that. And, so, there’s more and more focus, I think, now on what exactly was the ventilation system leading up in the days just before the explosion.

JIM LEHRER: Well, we talked about this last night a little bit, Frank, but refresh our memories here. The system within these mines is supposed to catch, automatically, methane, poisonous gas when it gets too high, when the levels get too high. Am I correct about that?

FRANK LANGFITT: Absolutely.

There’s been a lot of improvements in mine safety over the decades. And there are lots of failsafes. One is if you have, say, a continuous miner. This is a big mining machine that goes in and grinds up the coal from the walls. If the methane level goes over 2 percent in the air, that machine should automatically shut down.

The other thing is that, you know, miners do have ways of monitoring methane. And, obviously, from what we have been hearing, there were problems with methane leading up to this accident. The other thing that you sometimes find, the ventilation system is designed — there are giant fans to move air around the mine to make sure that the methane levels are diluted and low.

And, so, investigators are always looking. Were these sensors working correctly? Was the ventilation system being followed closely? That’s one of the things that they will be looking at very soon.

JIM LEHRER: Now, otherwise today, they are still drilling some holes, but, basically, this was a waiting day; am I right?

FRANK LANGFITT: It really was a waiting day. They got their first samples earlier this morning. And the methane levels were about 3 percent. That is not quite combustible, but when you combine it with the hydrogen and the carbon monoxide, it could, in fact, explode.

So, they’re holding the rescuers out. What they don’t to do, as we were talking just about last night, they don’t want the rescuers to go in. They don’t want there to be a spark and actually lose more people.

So, the other thing that was interesting is, the carbon monoxide levels were very high. In fact, they were so high that, when the air began coming out of the borehole, the people who were working on the machinery were affected by it.

JIM LEHRER: Wow.

FRANK LANGFITT: And they had to put a tube over the borehole to actually get that air out of the way, to not really affect and make it harder for the people to work.

JIM LEHRER: So, there’s not even a proposed timeline at this point as to when it may be possible for the rescuers to go in there?

FRANK LANGFITT: They’re being very, very careful about giving any sort of timetable.

And, at every news conference, we’re pressing them very hard. They are — they have a second hole about 500, 600 feet down, as you heard, and they’re going to continue to bore these holes. But it could take quite a long time.

As we were mentioning last night, there have been situations in the past where they have sent rescuers in where the air was not safe, and they have had explosions and they have lost more people. What Governor Manchin told the families today is, if some of your loved once were able to make it into these rescue chambers, they will be OK. They have at least 96 hours of air and food to survive.

So, he said that they’re accepting that. But, yes, it was a very slow and I think, for many people in the community, probably a very frustrating day.

JIM LEHRER: Now, when the governor said there’s a sliver of hope, how would you — how should sliver be defined at this point?

FRANK LANGFITT: Well, I think — I think time is your enemy in these situations. This has been proven time and again in coal mining accidents.

The sooner you can get people out, the more likely that they’re going to survive. The longer it takes, the lower it gets. There have been — I think, at this point, many people think it is very unlikely that anyone has survived. But there have been miracles.

If you remember Quecreek in Pennsylvania, there was a flooding there.

JIM LEHRER: Yes.

FRANK LANGFITT: Many people thought most of those miners were lost. They survived.

Just a recent case in China, just last week, that same thing happened. So, I think the officials here always want to hold on to some hope before they finally declare that all hope is lost.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Frank, paint the scene for us a little bit. What is it like there?

FRANK LANGFITT: Well, it has been very sober.

But I do want to mention something. The local people in the community — we’re set up here — the national press corps is at an elementary school. And they have been bringing us food. Schoolkids were coming in and they were bringing us bags of food and lunches and cherry pies.

So, people — we’re here at their most vulnerable moment, and they have really shown a lot of politeness and caring for us, which I think says a lot about West Virginia and the people who live around here.

JIM LEHRER: Now, the people who are gathered, are they — they are obviously families — family of the four miners who are still missing, as well as families of those who are dead, but are still in the mine, is that correct, among others?

FRANK LANGFITT: Yes. There are — there are still — there are still the four who are missing, and there are some other bodies that have not been recovered yet.

JIM LEHRER: And those — those families are waiting for that, as well as the — to get the final word on those four?

FRANK LANGFITT: They are, of course. And that leaves them uneasy. There still is not a sense of conclusion to this for those families, until their loved ones are brought out.

JIM LEHRER: OK.

Well, Frank, thanks again.

FRANK LANGFITT: You’re very welcome, Jim.