Hopes Die With Discovery Of W.Va. Miner's Bodies

The last four miners trapped in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia were found dead Friday night, bringing the death toll in the mine explosion to 29. Families of the miners have started holding memorial services. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's Allison Keyes for the latest update.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

There was a sliver of hope until late last night that four men missing in a West Virginia coal mine might have survived an explosion that killed 25 of their fellow miners. But just before midnight, rescuers found the bodies of the missing men. And what had been a rescue mission became a recovery operation.

State and federal officials are working to find out what caused the explosion last Monday to try to make sure such a disaster doesn't happen again. NPR's Allison Keyes has been covering this story from Raleigh County, West Virginia and joins us.

Allison, thanks for being with us and tell us, please, what happened to the rescue very early this morning.

ALLISON KEYES: It was absolutely devastating to watch the men who had been trying so hard to get the men that they had hoped had survived the explosion out of those mines to come in and stand there and have to say that that had failed. There were 150 rescuers in there trying to get the people out.

And they hoped that they had gotten to an airtight chamber. But there was a point at about 11:30 last night when West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, who was very emotional, basically came and said that all the hope had failed.

Governor JOE MANCHIN (Democrat, West Virginia): The bodies of our miners were found. Three exactly where we thought they were. And one on the long wall where we thought he was.

KEYES: He also stressed, though, that the rescuers said that the men didn't suffer. The blast was so sudden and so violent and happened so fast, they died in the initial blast. In fact, the rescuers who went into the mine on Monday missed the bodies of the four miners that they couldn't find in all the debris and smoke.

SIMON: And how are the families that have lost loved ones, and for that matter, the rescue workers dealing with this tragedy and disappointment?

KEYES: All week long, even though from day one they said that there was little chance that the four men had been able to survive, but the families had been holding out hope all week, and then last night the federal mine safety worker, Kevin Stricklin, was swaying on his feet, he was so exhausted. Stricklin says it's been a terrible emotional rollercoaster. I mean, for the families, of course, but also for the rescuers.

Mr. KEVIN STRICKLIN (Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration): It's hard to turn a rescue into a recovery with the same group of people and ask them after they've worked hard to try to rescue someone to start carrying bodies.

SIMON: And both Governor Manchin and Kevin Stricklin said that they really want to investigate this. And what's happening with that investigation at the moment?

KEYES: Well, the U.S. House and Senate have said that they're going to hold hearings on this, although a date for that hasn't been set yet. Both the governor and Stricklin said there'll be a state and federal probe that could take up to a year. The governor was wondering yesterday, what about the ventilation problems? Massey has been cited for those before.

There were questions about why automatic machinery didn't shut down before the blast happened. Kevin Stricklin said the only good that would come out of this is that some regulations might be created to make sure that something like this doesn't happen again.

SIMON: And Allison, funerals and memorial services for 25 victims, now 29, some have already been held. What are some of the people going to those services saying to you?

KEYES: Well, we went to a visitation for 25-year-old Jason Matthew Atkins last night in Comfort, West Virginia. There were a lot of people there. People that said they didn't know him. They came from the community. They came to pay respects to him and the other miners, also to his brother who's a miner. There was a gentleman there, J.F. Howerton(ph), who's boss at the mines - and he's actually very angry because he feels his company is being perceived unfairly.

Mr. J.F. HOWERTON (Coal Miner): They're villainizing the company. I mean I understand wanting to put the blame on somebody, but what they're not thinking about is we're local guys. I boss for them and I'm not under there trying to kill people. I'm not under there breaking the law. I'm under there doing everything I can to make sure it's 100 percent safe. But you're going into a hostile environment.

KEYES: The governor of West Virginia is asking people to observe a moment of silence on Monday at 3:30 p.m. It's about the same time the blast happened.

SIMON: NPR's Allison Keyes in Raleigh County, West Virginia.

Thanks for being with us.

KEYES: You're welcome.

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