Drilling Begins In Search For Four Missing Miners West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin says rescue crews have started drilling to release gases at a mine in an attempt to make it safe to search for four miners who are missing. It wasn't clear what caused the worst U.S. mining disaster since 1984, though the mine has a history of safety violations.

Drilling Begins In Search For Four Missing Miners

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin says rescue crews have started drilling to release gases at a mine in an attempt to make it safe to search for four miners who are missing.

Manchin said Tuesday that rescue workers won't be able to explore the area until they are able to test the underground air

for dangerous gases.

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

Chris Adkins, the chief operating officer for Massey Energy Co., says he expects the drilling to be complete as early as noon Wednesday. The underground explosion Monday killed 25 miners.

Crews bulldozed an access road so they could drill 1,000 feet into the earth to release gases and make it safe to try to find the four. They were feared dead after the Monday afternoon blast at a mine with a history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane.

Rescuers were being held back by poison gases that accumulated near the blast site, about 1.5 miles from the entrance to Massey Energy Co.'s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine.

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Manchin said it could be Wednesday night before the first ventilation hole can be drilled to try to rescue four miners thought to be trapped in the Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va.

"It's a slow process," he said. "It's just going to be a slow process."

Search teams were deep in the mine at about 2 a.m. Tuesday when they were forced back by intolerable levels of highly combustible methane and toxic carbon monoxide gases. Crews planned to bore holes more than 1,000 feet through the coal seam to vent the gases that have built up after the blast Monday afternoon.

The cause of the explosion — the worst U.S. mining disaster in decades — is still not known, but safety officials say the mine, owned by Massey Energy Co., has been cited in the past for failing to properly vent methane.

Kevin Stricklin, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said that "all explosions are preventable" if the proper precautions are taken.

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

"It's quite evident that something went very wrong to have this kind of explosion," he said, adding, "We will leave no stone unturned to find out what was going on."

Officials acknowledged that the chance of finding survivors was low but that they had not given up hope.

Nine rescue teams were at work trying to extract the miners. Each chamber in the mine is supposed to be equipped with rescue breathing equipment and stocked with enough food and water to last for four days.

Regulators believe a buildup of methane caused the explosion, and the concentration of the gas makes it impossible to continue the search, Stricklin said. Asked exactly where in the mine the explosion took place, he said, "That's not something that we're looking at right now. We're focused on a rescue operation."

President Obama offered his condolences to the families of the miners killed and praised rescuers who he said are "searching tirelessly and courageously."

"The federal government stands willing to offer any assistance necessary," Obama said.

Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) said the people of his state are "strong and united in prayer."

A total of 31 miners were in the area during a shift change when the blast occurred. Stricklin said some may have died in the blast and others may have perished after breathing the gas-filled air. Of the 25 people who were killed, Manchin said 11 bodies had been recovered and identified, but the remaining 14 have not.

"Everybody's just heartbroken over this and the impact on these families," said mine safety director Joe Main, who was headed to West Virginia.

In a statement early Tuesday, Massey Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship offered his condolences to the families of the dead miners. "Tonight we mourn the deaths of our members at Massey Energy," he said.

Blankenship told The Associated Press that a carbon monoxide warning was the first hint of trouble at Upper Big Branch. He said crews were checking on the alarm when they discovered that an explosion had occurred deep inside the mine.

Massey Energy, based in Richmond, Va., ranks among the nation's top five coal producers, and its mines have seen their share of safety violations and accidents.

In 2006, two miners were killed in a fire at a mine run by a Massey subsidiary in Stollings, W.Va. The subsidiary, Aracoma Coal, was cited for 25 violations, including several designated as "reckless disregard" related to inadequate ventilation of dangerous mine gases and other problems. Aracoma later agreed to pay a record $2.5 million in fines as a result of the investigation and an additional $1.7 million to the widows of those killed in the accident.

Hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines have been assessed for similar violations at Upper Big Branch, where three workers have died in the past dozen years. A laborer was crushed to death in 1998 when an improperly welded steel support gave way. Three years later, a continuous mining machine operator died after a roof collapsed. In 2003, an electrician was killed after touching an exposed cable carrying 480 volts used to power shuttle cars.

Davitt McAteer, who led the MSHA under President Clinton, said Tuesday that "we're not doing enough" to make the nation's mines safe. Most coal mines, he said, don't have adequate communications systems and don't take proper precautions against methane buildup.

The West Virginia disaster is the nation's worst coal mine accident since 27 people were killed in a Utah mine in 1984.

In 2006, 12 miners died after an explosion in the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, W.Va. The following year, six miners and three rescue workers were killed when a wall collapsed in the Crandall Canyon Mine in Emery County, Utah.

NPR's Brian Naylor reported from Montcoal, W.Va.; Erica Peterson of West Virginia Public Radio reported from Charleston, W.Va.