The search for possible survivors from Monday's blast was called off overnight because of rising methane gas levels in the Massey Energy Co.'s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine near Montcoal, about 30 miles south of West Virginia's state capital, Charleston. Higher levels of methane gas increase the risk of another explosion. Officials said at a news conference before dawn this morning that three bore holes must be drilled into the earth to allow the toxic gases to escape and the air to clear before rescuers can re-enter.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III said this morning that drilling on the first 1,100-foot-deep hole had begun but would take at least 12 hours, meaning it wouldn't be finished until evening. "It's going to be a very long day," he said on NBC's "Today" show.
"The odds are long. In West Virginia, we have faith and we hope for a miracle ... but the odds are long against us," he said. "The prayers are what we need."
The huge explosion happened around 3 p.m. Monday. The cause was not known.
Massey Energy, whose subsidiary Performance Coal Co. operates the Upper Big Branch Mine, has been cited for scores of safety violations in recent years. It was cited for violating ventilation standards there as recently as March 30, and federal inspectors also found violations for drill dust and air quality last month.The mine has seen three roof falls since last November, and before Monday's powerful explosion, three miners had died in the mine since 1998.
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Last year, federal inspectors fined the company more than $382,000 for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment, The Associated Press reported.
Miner Steve Smith felt Monday's blast while working underground at another site about seven miles away.
"Before you knew it, it was just like your ears stopped up, you couldn't hear," Smith told ABC Radio. "The next thing you know, you're just right in the middle of a tornado. We just hurried up and high-tailed it back to the outside."
Of the 25 miners killed, 14 have yet to be identified. "So you can imagine the anxiety with the families," Manchin said on NBC.
"The families want closure," Manchin said earlier at a news conference. "They want names ... these families are good people. Hard-working people. They understand the challenges. Right now I told them to do what they do best: Love each other and come together as a family."
President Barack Obama opened a talk at an Easter prayer breakfast today by offering his "deepest condolences" to the families.
He noted the four missing miners and said: "Rescue teams are searching tirelessly and courageously to find them" and said he hopes the victims' families can "find comfort in the hard days ahead."
Federal safety officials said they had hoped that some of the miners survived the initial blast and were able to climb into airtight chambers underground that are stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for them to live for four days. But when rescuers reached one of the two shelters, it was empty. They were forced to call off the search before reaching the second chamber.
"It does not appear that any of the individuals made it to a rescue chamber," Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, told reporters.
"All we have left is hope, and we're going to continue to do what we can," he said. "But I'm just trying to be honest with everybody and say that the situation does look dire."
Manchin said miracles can happen -- such as after the 2006 Sago mine explosion, when miner Randal McCloy Jr. was pulled out alive after being trapped for more than 40 hours underground.
Grieving relatives and neighbors in the tight-knit Appalachian mining community hovered nearby, hugging and weeping, as rescuers descended into the mine's deep tunnels searching for their loved ones. The death toll rose steadily through the night, from seven Monday evening to 12 at midnight, and now 25.
"Everybody's just heartbroken over this and the impact on these families," the U.S. mine safety director, Joe Main, told The Associated Press as he headed to West Virginia.
Massey's chairman, Don Blankenship, offered condolences to the families and thanked rescuers. "Tonight we mourn the deaths of our members at Massey Energy," he said in a statement.
Massey Energy also confirmed that 25 bodies were found. State mining director Ron Wooten told reporters the prospect of finding the remaining four miners alive is bleak, but that rescuers won't give up.
"We haven't given up hope at all," he said.
This is the deadliest mine disaster in the United States since 1984, when 27 people were killed by a fire at Emery Mining Corp.'s mine in Orangeville, Utah. If the four missing miners are found dead, it would mark the most miners killed in a single incident in 40 years.
With all efforts put toward finding the missing miners, officials said it was still too early to judge what caused Monday's blast. But federal mine safety officials have repeatedly cited Massey -- one of the nation's largest coal producers -- for potentially dangerous conditions, including inadequate ventilation of combustible methane gas.
Manchin called the explosion "horrendous" and said some of the mine's railroad tracks were "twisted like pretzels."
Methane, a colorless and odorless gas often used for cooking or heating, is one of the biggest dangers in mines, where giant fans are used to keep concentrations below certain levels. The gas is so flammable, it can explode from a spark roughly equivalent to the static charge created by walking across a carpet in winter. That's what happened at the Sago mine in West Virginia, where 12 miners died in 2006.
Since then, regulators have required mines to supply workers with extra canisters of oxygen while they're underground. Miners also carry containers on their belts. Stricklin told reporters that rescuers trying to reach the trapped miners in this case found evidence that some workers tapped into emergency oxygen tanks inside the mine -- evidence that at least some of them survived the initial blast. Others may have died in the explosion or from breathing gas-filled air, he said.
"Benny was the type -- he probably wouldn't have stayed retired long," Sheila Prillaman said. "He wasn't much of a homebody."
Prillaman said her family was angry because they learned of Willingham's death when they saw his name on a list released by Massey, even though the company said they wouldn't release names of the dead until company representatives informed relatives personally.
Massey Energy is one of the country's top five coal producers, with 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee. It's also one of the industry's most profitable. The company has its headquarters in Richmond, Va.