Four coal miners were missing after an explosion that killed 25 and blocked rescuers Tuesday from resuming their search in the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than two decades.
Rescuers began drilling three deep holes to vent poison gases methane and carbon monoxide from the mine so search teams could go back in. But it will take until evening to get the first hole done and see if the mine air will allow re-entry, Gov. Joe Manchin said.
The blast rocked Massey Energy Co.’s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine Monday.
Manchin said that while drilling on at least one of the three holes was slated to begin soon, it would take perhaps 12 hours before the drilling was complete and rescue teams could be sure of their safety in the mine, meaning the search wasn’t expected to resume before 6 p.m.
The drills need to bore through about 1,100 feet of earth and rock, he said.
“All we have left is hope, and we’re going to continue to do what we can,” Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said. “But I’m just trying to be honest with everybody and say that the situation does look dire.”
Though the cause of the blast was not known, the operation has a history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane gas, safety officials said.
Stricklin said officials had hoped some of the missing survived the blast and were able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for them to live for four days. The buildup of toxic methane gas — a constant problem at the mine — and of carbon monoxide prevented teams from reaching other chambers, officials said.
Thiry-one miners were in the area during a shift change when the blast happened, officials said. Some might 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, Manchin said.
It is 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. 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.