Conditions Thwart Rescue Attempts In W.Va. Mine

Rescue crews at a West Virginia coal mine are hoping to find four missing miners alive. The teams went down into the mine early Friday but had to be pulled out because of difficult conditions. Nitrogen is being pumped in to help flush out toxic gases. It's been more than three days since an explosion rocked the mine, killing at least 25 men.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Let's go back to West Virginia now, where rescue efforts have resumed for four West Virginia coal miners missing inside a mine for several days now. You'll recall that the rescuers went in yesterday, but were driven out again by noxious gas. NPR's Allison Keyes is in Raleigh County, West Virginia covering this story. And Allison, how did the rescuers get back in this morning?

ALLISON KEYES: Well, one of the things that helped them out, Steve, is the fact that the barometric pressure was rising, which helped lowered the levels of the toxic gases. And finally, at about 12:30 a.m. this morning, the level of gas has dropped enough so that the teams can go in to search for the refuge chambers, where it's hoped the four missing miners might be.

They think that if they are in those chambers they have air, food and water for about 96 hours. The plan was to send in two teams of eight rescuers then pump in nitrogen gas, which would replace the oxygen and make sure that there would be no further chance of explosion or fire. Officials, though, say if the refuge chambers had no been used then it would be assumed that no one had survived and the recovery effort would resume. They pulled out seven bodies, as you know, on Monday.

INSKEEP: Well, you mentioned two factors there. One is the barometric pressure, which is, of course, out of the rescuers' control. The other, though, is pumping in nitrogen, and I suppose some people will be wondering why they didn't try that earlier.

KEYES: Well, Kevin Strickland, who's at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, says they talked about doing the nitrogen earlier, but they were hoping that using fans to pull bad air out of the mine would have allowed the rescue teams to go back in without having to use oxygen. That way, they wouldn't have had to carry so much equipment, and either survivors or victims could have been pulled out immediately upon being found.

But since that didn't happen, they used the nitrogen to make sure to keep the toxic gases from returning to dangerous levels. Strickland says the recovery of those that were killed is going to take some time.

Mr. KEVIN STRICKLAND (Mine Safety and Health Administration): It's going to be a slow process. I mean, it's a lot of work, a lot of caring work and we're trying to get the use of some equipment, some mobile equipment that will help us do that. But, I mean, this is very tedious work. We've got to respect the bodies. And I don't have a timeframe on it. We're just going to try to do it as soon as possible.

INSKEEP: That's Kevin Strickland, the federal mine official. And this must be an excruciating wait for the families, Allison Keyes.

KEYES: It's been quite the emotional rollercoaster for them, and it's affected the whole town. We got in yesterday afternoon, and nearly every business you passed, from churches to pharmacies, even to a Dairy Queen, has messages or signs asking people to pray for the miners and their families.

Also, we spoke to a former coal miner, John Canterbury. He worked in mines in this area for 27 years. His dad died of a heart attack in a coal mine here when he was a high school senior. Canterbury teaches elementary school now, but he says this has been a terrible tragedy for the people here. He echoed the feelings of several other people that we spoke to; says this job is the only gig in town for many who need the money to survive. He says he feels really sorry for the families.

Mr. JOHN CANTERBURY (Teacher): I understand where they're coming from. They do it because of their families. If it was only them, yeah, they'd probably hightail it out as fast, you know. But they're married with children and they support their family. And I have all the utmost respect for anyone who would go underground, because it does take a special person to be a coal miner.

KEYES: Steve, I should add that West Virginia's governor, Joe Manchin, has been talking a lot about the families here. He says they're the strongest, toughest people in the world; and they're mining families, generational mining families, and they understand the dangers. He says even as they worried about their loved ones, they also worried about rescuers - who were also miners - going in to risk their lives as well. We'll have more as we get updates from the command center.

INSKEEP: NPR's Allison Keyes is in Coalmont, West Virginia. Thanks very much.

KEYES: You're welcome.

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