At Least 25 Dead In West Virginia Mine Blast

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An underground explosion in a West Virginia mine killed at least 25 people in the worst U.S. mining disaster in decades. Four other coal miners remain missing.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

A small West Virginia community is mourning the loss of more than two dozen miners today. Four others remain missing. Rescuers have been trying to create a way to safely enter the Upper Big Branch mine after yesterday's massive explosion.

At the same time, federal investigators are beginning to ask what went so terribly wrong. We'll hear more about the mine's troubled safety record in a moment. But first, NPR's Frank Langfitt reports from Naoma, West Virginia.

FRANK LANGFITT: One of the things that distinguishes yesterday's mine disaster in West Virginia is the sheer size of the explosion. Officials say the blast spread across thousands and thousands of feet in the sprawling Upper Big Branch mine in the community of Coal Mount(ph), and was far more powerful than the state's last big mine disaster in Sago, which claimed the lives of a dozen miners in 2006.

West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin said the scene inside the mine was devastating.

Governor JOE MANCHIN (Democrat, West Virginia): Train rails, they go back and look like they've been twisted like a pretzel. That's horrific. That's an explosion that just - beyond proportion.

LANGFITT: The toll of that explosion now stands at 25, the largest in the nation in about a quarter century. This small community is only beginning to come to grips with what it has lost.

After the mourning, federal investigators will begin to try to figure out what caused all this. Kevin Stricklin is chief of coalmine safety for the federal government. He says investigators will focus intently on coal dust and methane. They'll be taking rock samples...

Mr. KEVIN STRICKLIN (Chief of Coalmine Safety, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration): We'll be doing extensive interviews with the personnel who were in the mine, asking them what did your methane tests show you. And we basically will try to pinpoint the location of where the explosion started to determine if it was a methane or a coal dust or both.

LANGFITT: Stricklin said the mine, owned by Massey Energy, threw off large amounts of methane gas, a condition potentially so dangerous that it required extra inspections by the federal government.

Mr. STRICKLIN: This mine liberated 1.5 million cubic feet of methane in a 24-hour period, which meets the criteria that we would do a special spot inspection on it once every five days. So we would consider this to be a gassy mine.

LANGFITT: I haven't had a chance to look at all the data. How have those inspections been going?

Mr. STRICKLIN: I haven't had a chance to look at the data either.

LANGFITT: But you'll be looking at it, eh?

Mr. STRICKLIN: I think everybody will be scrutinizing that data.

LANGFITT: Strickland said the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration will also try to determine if the Upper Big Branch mine was following its ventilation plan. Mines have to submit plans on how they manage airflow. They use fans and barriers to make sure methane doesn't reach deadly levels.

As of this afternoon, four miners are still missing. But methane levels inside the mine are still too dangerous for rescue workers to enter. Workers are boring holes 1,200 feet through rock and earth to vent the mine. Strickland says they will lower sensors down to see if anyone is still alive.

Mr. STRICKLIN: It may be a dire situation, but basically we can't give up hope. And we got to try to get in there. You just never know. We're still referring to it as a rescue operation.

LANGFITT: One miner who didn't make it out is Benny Willingham, age 62.

Ms. MICHELLE McKINNEY: He had been in the mines 30, I believe, 32, 33 years, and he was retiring. May 13th of this year was going to be his last day.

LANGFITT: That's his daughter Michelle McKinney. She said her father loved his job and that he and her mother planned to travel in his retirement.

Ms. McKINNEY: They had a cruise already paid for in May. He loved to travel, and he loved his grandbabies, he loved us.

LANGFITT: Yesterday, I also spoke with Benny Willingham's sister, Janine(ph), and brother-in-law Bobby Sanger. Sanger sells replacement parts for mining equipment and spends lots of time around mines. He told me he understands why some in this part of the country love working underground. But Willingham's sister, Janine, tells me she doesn't. Here's my conversation with the two.

Mr. BOBBY SANGER: I guess the fellowship, the camaraderie. And it's -the guys love each other. I mean, they would die for each other. In this case, they did. It's generations deep. If it's not in your blood, it's hard to comprehend.

LANGFITT: Ma'am, how did you feel about the mines?

Ms. JANINE SANGER: I hated it.

LANGFITT: Did you ever talk to him much about it?

Ms. SANGER: Oh, he was a big macho man. He thought it wouldn't happen to him, I guess.

LANGFITT: In the hills of West Virginia, many miners think the same way. How else to cope with one of the nation's most dangerous jobs?

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Naoma, West Virginia.

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