25 Miners Perish In West Virginia Explosion

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Rescuers have converged on a West Virginia coal mine where 25 workers were killed in an explosion Monday. Four miners are still missing deep underground. Safety officials say the operation has a history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane gas.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We're going to go next to the Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in Montcoal, West Virginia. That's where at least 25 miners have died in an explosion. Officials at the Massey Energy Company have suspended efforts to retrieve the bodies because of rising levels of methane gas inside that underground mine. NPR's Brian Naylor is at the scene. And Brian, what have you seen this morning?

BRIAN NAYLOR: Steve, the sun is up, and it's still a rather grim scene here outside the mine. It's a rather sprawling mine. We're next to one part of it where there happens to be an elementary school that's been transformed into a makeshift media center.

Driving in last night, we saw a lot of emergency vehicles, and many of them were heading away from the mine. That's because, as you mentioned, they have suspended rescue and recovery efforts because of high levels of methane and carbon monoxide that were detected during the rescue effort. It forced company officials decided that they should suspend, because of safety concerns.

INSKEEP: Because of those safety concerns it must require quite a lot of detective work to determine who is dead and who if anyone might still be alive.

NAYLOR: Well, that's right. There were survivors and there were rescuers inside the mine, and they feel they have a pretty good handle. They were able to pull some bodies out last night and yesterday afternoon, and they have identified remains of others. And as yet there are still four people four miners who are unaccounted for, and there is a great hope here that they may still possibly by some miracle be alive.

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin has been here talking to reporters. He was here back in 2006, during the Sago mine disaster, a very similar explosion caused by methane, not too far from here, at a different mine. And his home town has also been hit by a mine explosion, and he talked a little bit about that to reporters this morning, about the sense of family here. Here's what he had to say.

Governor JOE MANCHIN (Democrat, West Virginia): I know that I lost my uncle, I lost friends, I've lost neighbors. I've lost a lot of people in the mines. It never gets easier. It gets tougher every time.

NAYLOR: And a lot of that grief is being felt in these hills and hollers of Central West Virginia around here this morning.

INSKEEP: Brian Naylor, is there enough safety equipment down in that mine oxygen tanks and so forth that there really is a chance that some of those four missing miners might, might still be alive?

NAYLOR: Well, that's the hope, Steve. They are said to be trapped in a chamber that's several thousand feet, over a mile, into the mine. It's quite a sprawling facility, and they are far in it.

They are on the other side of three coal seams, that when rescue efforts resume, rescuers are going to have to drill through several hundred feet of coal in order to reach them. But after the Sago disaster in 2006, standards were improved and required oxygen masks and that there be oxygen supplies scattered through these coal mines, and along with some food. And the hope is that these folks, if they're still alive, are in a chamber where there is oxygen and they have what they need to survive for several hours, if not days.

INSKEEP: So the rules were made more strict, were strengthened. But what is known about the specific safety record of this mine, the Upper Big Branch?

NAYLOR: Well, this mine, Steve, has a checkered safety past. There have been three fatalities in it in the past 12 years. It's owned by Massey Energy, which has been fined several hundred thousand dollars because of the very concerns that led to the explosion of coal dust accumulation, of methane gas accumulation that's been a problem in this mine in the past, and the company has had to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines because of it.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Naylor covering a disaster in Montcoal, West Virginia, where at least 25 miners are dead from a mine explosion, some miners still unaccounted for.

Brian, thanks very much.

NAYLOR: Thank you, Steve.

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