Rescue Teams Get Go-Ahead To Enter Mine

Authorities say air quality is good enough to allow crews to search for four men missing in a West Virginia coal mine for more than two days since a blast killed 25 miners. Hopes are slim that anyone could still be alive.


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


And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Rescue workers tried again, this morning, to find four missing West Virginia coal miners. They tried, and then again, they had to stop. Rescue teams entered the mine this morning, but within hours, encountered dangerous levels of deadly gases. NPR's Brian Naylor is following the story.

Brian, what more can you tell us about the situation now?

BRIAN NAYLOR: Well, it's pretty much as you described it, Steve. The rescue workers went in about 4:50-55 this morning, Eastern time, and were making their way in through this labyrinth of tunnels inside the Upper Big Branch Mine. And while they were moving in, rescue workers on the outside were monitoring the atmospheric levels, and they determined that there was too explosive a mixture of carbon monoxide, methane, and hydrogen, and they were worried about the rescuers' safety. And so they ordered them to turn around and come out. And they are leaving the mine and leaving behind their equipment and hope to return later today.

INSKEEP: I suppose this is a reminder of just how dangerous it is. I assume the rescuers have oxygen masks, so it's not a matter of breathing clean air, it's a matter of anything could set off an explosion, because the mixture is just that rich.

NAYLOR: That's exactly right. And they're not sure whether the mixture is a residual from the original explosion on Monday, or whether it's - there's smoldering going on inside the mine, from that first blast. But they are concerned that the levels have gotten worse throughout the morning. So what they're trying to do is drill another hole into the mine. It was described this morning as - there's kind of a pop bottle situation. There's a lot of air in the pop bottle that's really hard to get it out because there's just one opening. So they're trying to drill another hole and set up some fans to draw that dangerous gas out of the mine.

INSKEEP: Brian, if the air is still that dangerous, even after they have made efforts over the last several days to clear it out, what does that say of the odds of anyone's survival inside that mine for the last several days?

NAYLOR: Well, Steve, the odds have always been long, and officials have acknowledged that from the very start. The odds that the four unaccounted-for miners survived the initial blast - if they were able to survive the initial blast, the hope is that they were able make their way to a - what's called a refuge chamber, which is a big metal box which is airtight and is sealed off. And they can survive inside that. The box is equipped with oxygen and with food, and they could survive inside that box for up to four days - a group of 15 miners. So what the rescuers have been trying to do, or were trying to do this morning, is to get to those. There are two boxes that they've identified in the area where the explosion occurred, where they think these four unaccounted-for miners are. They said they were about a thousand feet from one of those refuge chambers this morning before they had to retreat.

INSKEEP: So if someone is safe in one of those boxes, there's still, at this point, at least a sliver of hope to get to them if they're there. Do the rescuers know if they'll be able to make another attempt today?

NAYLOR: Well, that's what the hope is. Officials are saying, you know, it all depends on whether they can clear up the atmosphere in there. They're mentioning - there's a weather change coming through and the barometer has been dropping, and this weather system may be, somehow, causing the gas to settle in. That's one of the scenarios, but they're not quite sure. I should say, also, this has been, you know, as described by Governor Joe Manchin, a real rollercoaster ride for the families that have been on the scene and still don't know exactly what happened to their relatives, to their loved ones. But they're said to be behind the decision to pull the rescuers out, because they don't want to risk those folks, either.

INSKEEP: NPR's Brian Naylor is at the scene of a rescue effort outside a coal mine in West Virginia.

Brian, thanks as always.

NAYLOR: Thank you, Steve.

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