ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

The situation in West Virginia is grim. It's now been more than 30 hours since an explosion in a mine there trapped 13 men hundreds of feet underground. Air quality tests from inside the mine show fatal levels of carbon monoxide. Rescue crews are more than 10,000 feet into the mine trying to reach the miners inside.

SIEGEL: Ben Hatfield is president of the International Coal Group, the company that owns the mine. He tried to remain optimistic about the rescue mission at a news conference earlier today.

Mr. BEN HATFIELD (President, International Coal Group): Everybody on--within a mile of that mine office and the command center is just devoting 100 percent of their time to get these people out if they are alive. While there's hope of them being alive, our energies are devoted 100 percent to that effort. The facts are unchanged from what I told you earlier. We do not know what caused this explosion. It doesn't make sense to us that the methane levels are low everywhere we go, and yet we had an explosion that seems to resemble a methane explosion. We do not know what happened, and I think it would be a disservice to the investigation to try to speculate on what may have happened.

SIEGEL: That's Ben Hatfield, president of the International Coal Group.

NORRIS: In this segment we're going to hear more about that company, International Coal Group, and about mine safety. We're going to start with NPR's Frank Langfitt. He's at the Sago Mine, the scene of the accident.

Frank, you've been there all day long. What can you tell us about the rescue operation?

FRANK LANGFITT reporting:

Well, Michele, it seems to be going pretty slowly. They're--by about noon today they were about 10,000 feet into the mine, but they still had 2 to 3,000 feet to go. And they're not really sure where these miners are. One of the things they're doing is drilling two more holes to try to find pockets of air where perhaps it was good air; it didn't have this carbon monoxide level. So it might be a place where the miners could have hid out and perhaps survived. But those carbon monoxide levels that were announced early this morning, I think, really cast a pall around this site here, certainly among the executives and many of the miners' families who are up here at the church. We may learn more about what they're finding in these holes that they're drilling.

NORRIS: And this is a case where the rescuers themselves face certain dangers. What kind of dangers do they face?

LANGFITT: Well, really, it's--carbon monoxide seems to be the thing that has really captured people's minds here. The levels were very, very high, very toxic. People under these conditions might not last more than 15 or 20 minutes if they were in a pocket like this. And so what they're doing is they're moving very slowly and taking measurements, these rescuers, and feeding the information up to the surface, so they themselves don't get into a situation where they can't breathe. And so that's also been slowing down the rescue operation.

NORRIS: Frank, we know that family and friends are gathered in a church across the street from the mine. You've had a chance to speak to some of the people there. What are they telling you?

LANGFITT: Well, you know, this is the kind of vigil that no family ever wants to participate in this part of the country, here in Central Appalachia, but it's been a part of life here for decades. And what happens is when there's an explosion like this, the whole community--these are small communities, but the whole community turns out. And I think that earlier people were hoping that there might be some sort of miracle like, you know, what we saw back in 2002 up in western Pennsylvania. But the news of this carbon monoxide I think really hit people quite hard.

I talked to Nick Helms. He's about 25 years old. His father, Terry, works in the mine. He's a fire boss; he works in safety. And Nick was trying to remain as optimistic as he could and talked about how his father had a great deal of experience and would know how to handle these problems. But he also said that his dad had always told him to never get into this business because it is quite dangerous at times. This is Nick Helms. Let's listen to some tape of him.

Mr. NICK HELMS (Son of Trapped Miner): He didn't want me to have to go through an everyday job that--it totally has ran him down. He wanted me to do something that I loved and not have to settle for being tired, ruining my health over, you know, making a living.

LANGFITT: You know, and one of the things about these jobs, though, is that they're hard to resist. There are not a lot of good jobs in this part of West Virginia, and people can make $75,000 a year. So in many cases, despite the risks, they'll often take them. I talked to a guy named Woody Cole(ph) who works in one of the mines, and he said it's hard to turn down this kind of money.

NORRIS: That's NPR's Frank Langfitt speaking to us from the Sago Coal Mine in Tallmansville, West Virginia. Frank, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Michele.

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