NPR logo Relatives Begin Burying Miners Killed In Blast

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Relatives Begin Burying Miners Killed In Blast

As grieving relatives began burying some of the 25 coal miners killed in a massive underground explosion, crews ventured back into the mine Friday despite increasingly slim odds of finding survivors.

Rescuers pulled seven bodies from the mine just after Monday's blast, the worst U.S. mining disaster in two decades, but were forced out by poisonous gas before they could remove the rest or check for four missing miners who might have been able to hole up in refuge chambers.

Locator map of Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in Montcoal, W.Va.
Alyson Hurt/NPR

Rescue teams have been trying ever since to get back inside Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine, but had to turn back for a third time Friday when they encountered smoke about 1,000 feet below the surface and five miles in.

Kevin Strickland, a Mine Safety and Health Administration official, said rescue teams abandoned the idea of lowering a camera into the shaft because they did not believe they would be able to see whether the last emergency chamber had been used.

Reaching the chamber — equipped with food, water and oxygen — was likely the miners' only chance for surviving the nation's worst mining disaster in a quarter-century. Monday's blast killed 25, many of whom have not yet been identified.

As crews prepared to go back into the mine, about 300 mourners gathered at the Mullens Family Worship Center in Mullens, W.Va., to remember 61-year-old Benny R. Willingham, who was scheduled to retire in just five weeks. The Rev. Gary Pollard told the group that Willingham was known for his generosity.

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In Focus

In Washington, President Obama offered his condolences to the victims' loved ones, saying the tragedy had killed almost entire families in the region where coal mining is a lifestyle as well as a livelihood.

"For the four who remain missing, we are praying for a miracle," Obama said.

Reading a letter left by victim Josh Napper and a passage from the Bible, Obama pledged to get a full accounting of what caused the accident when he meets next week with Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and Mine Safety and Health Administration head Joe Main.

Worst U.S. Coal Mine Disasters In 50 Years

1968 — Explosion kills 78 people at Consol No. 9 in Farmington, W.Va.

1970 — Explosion kills 38 people at Finley Coal Co.'s Nos. 15 and 16 mines in Hyden, Ky.

1984 — Fire kills 27 people at Emery Mining Corp.'s Wilberg Mine in Orangeville, Utah.

1976 — Explosion kills 26 people at Blue Diamond Coal Co.'s Scotia Mine in Oven Fork, Ky.

2010 — Explosion kills at least 25 people at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch Coal Mine in Montcoal, W.Va.

— Source: U.S. Mine Safety And Health Administration

Napper, 25, left behind a letter that he apparently wrote over the Easter weekend asking his mother and fiancee to take care of his 19-month-old daughter. Pam Napper, Josh's mother, said she believes her son was concerned about the mine's safety after a ventilation problem on Friday.

The cause of the explosion has not yet been determined. Ventilation has continued to be a problem during the rescue attempts.

Crews have repeatedly had to pull back after making their way about 1,000 feet below the surface and about five miles into the mine. Earlier this week, rescuers scrambled back to the surface because of dangerous gases. They found no sign of the miners in the first of two of the mine's emergency chambers.

Massey Energy Co., which owns the mine, vowed to conduct an extensive review of the accident in an effort to prevent future disasters. In a statement on its Web site, the company said it does not condone safety violations and maintained that Upper Big Branch has had less than one violation per day of inspection by MSHA since January 2009.

"Massey continues to devote its attention and resources to the ongoing rescue efforts and the families while working closely with federal and state agencies," the statement said.

The Richmond, Va.-based company had been repeatedly cited for ventilation problems at that allowed methane and other dangerous gases, as well as combustible coal dust, to accumulate in the Upper Big Branch facility. Federal regulators had issued evacuation orders for all or parts of the mine more than 60 times since the start of 2009, according to a report prepared for Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

In 2007, the Mine Safety and Health Administration came close to declaring that Upper Big Branch had "a pattern of violations." That could have led to the mine's being shut down.

MSHA released records of its three most recent quarterly inspections at Upper Big Branch. They listed 68 instances of high negligence and three of reckless disregard. There were repeated citations for problems with ventilation and with upkeep of the belt system, the mine's lifeline. Another quarterly inspection began a few days before the explosion.

The agency has the power to ask a judge to shut down the mine until safety conditions are improved, but it's never used that authority.

"This isn't business as usual," says Rick Melberth, director of regulatory policy at the nonprofit OMB [Office of Management and Budget] Watch, a group promoting government transparency. "There are huge mines out there that produce a lot more coal, have a lot more hours worked, and can operate without citations, without orders, without violations."

Massey CEO Don Blankenship has strongly defended the company's record and disputed claims that his company puts profits ahead of safety.

Early Friday, searchers headed to a rescue chamber where they hoped to find survivors. Instead, they were recalled to the surface after encountering smoke from an apparent new fire in the shaft, MSHA's Stricklin said.

"They proceeded into the mine. They got to the first rescue chamber and it was not deployed," Stricklin said.

On Thursday, crews got frustratingly close to the area in the mine where the miners are believed to be, but were ordered to retreat because of volatile methane gas. Workers then pumped nitrogen into the mine to neutralize the methane. That allowed rescuers wearing oxygen masks to move back into the rubble and make another attempt at finding survivors.

Pointing to a map of the mine, Stricklin showed where rescuers broke through to four connecting entries near the rescue chamber.

"We have smoke in all four of those entries, indicating that we have a fire somewhere," he said.

The second and last rescue chamber contains food, water and breathing equipment. Miners' families are hoping that they somehow reached it and that rescuers will find them alive.

"The big decision, and it's a very tough decision, was to pull the rescue teams out and not put them in harm's way based on that smoke that we saw," Stricklin said.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said the rescue crews were carrying four extra oxygen packs in hopes of finding survivors.

In a regulatory filing on Friday, Massey Energy said it would boost production at its other mines to compensate for the lost production at Upper Big Branch, which it had expected to yield 1.6 million tons of coal for the rest of 2010.

Monday's explosion highlights the danger inherent in the industry that provides fuel for the bulk of the country's electricity generation.

MSHA has appointed a team of investigators to examine the incident, and Obama said he has asked for a report next week on what may have caused the blast.