Last four Upper Big Branch miners found dead
MONTCOAL, W.Va. -- Four miners unaccounted for since a massive underground explosion Monday were found dead early this morning, pushing the death toll at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine to 29 and making it the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in 40 years.
Gov. Joe Manchin announced the grim findings at a news conference at Raleigh County's Marsh Fork Elementary School, where news media from around the world have camped out since Monday to chronicle a desperate, 100-hour rescue effort.
"We did not receive the miracle we prayed for," Manchin said at about 12:30 a.m. "So this journey has ended and now the healing will start."
The governor said miners had not deployed any of the rescue chambers in the mine, and that none of the workers had a chance to use their emergency breathing devices.
"We remained hopeful the four missing miners would have been found alive," Massey CEO Don Blankenship said in a statement issued just after Manchin's announcement. "I personally met with many of the families throughout the week and share their grief at this very painful time."
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., said of the miners' families, "Their loved ones are now smiling down upon them, and we all know they are in a better place and did not suffer."
Kevin Stricklin, administrator for coal at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said mine rescue crews would immediately begin recovering the miners' bodies and that MSHA would then turn its attention to investigating the disaster.
"I can assure you that no stone will be left unturned," Stricklin said. "We will find the cause of it."
As the news sunk in, several of the teachers and staff from Marsh Fork Elementary who had come to help the media stationed at the school, began weeping silently. Tammy Gobble hugged Sheri McGraw of the Red Cross and sobbed, her shoulders shaking.
Manchin said that the families wanted to wait until their loved ones had been removed from the mine, but the governor explained to them that it would take some time. He assured them that the fallen miners would be treated with dignity.
"Naturally, they wanted to wait and take their loved ones home with them," said the governor, who lost an uncle in the 1968 Farmington disaster.
Rescue teams had scoured the Upper Big Branch Mine on Friday in a fourth, last-ditch effort to find the four miners, in the hopes they had somehow made their way to an airtight rescue chamber stocked with food, water and breathable air.
Two other miners were injured in the explosion. One of them has been released from a local hospital, while the other remains in intensive care in Charleston. No information on his condition has been released.
A complete list of the victims and the injured has not been made public, and Manchin and Rahall urged the media to respect the privacy of the families in the days ahead.
The 29 deaths in the Upper Big Branch explosion are the most in a U.S. mine disaster since 38 perished in a coal-dust blast on Dec. 30, 1970, at Finley Coal's No. 15 and No. 16 mines on Hurricane Creek near Hyden, Ky.
It is the West Virginia coal industry's worst workplace disaster since 78 miners died in the November 1968 Farmington explosion. In February 1972, 125 residents of Buffalo Creek in Logan County died when a coal slurry dam there collapsed and flooded their hollow.
All week, mine safety advocates and political leaders have promised detailed investigations and said they would re-examine mine safety laws and enforcement practices in the wake of the disaster.
"It is infuriating that in this day and age, and in this country, that such a disaster could still happen," Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va., said in a statement Friday. "I am sick. I am saddened, and I am angry."
In brief remarks delivered in the White House Rose Garden, President Obama said Friday afternoon that "it's clear that more needs to be done" on the issue.
Obama has ordered Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and MSHA chief Joe Main to provide him a report by next week on their preliminary findings on "what went wrong and why it went wrong so badly, so that we can take the steps necessary to prevent such accidents in the future."
When asked if there would be public hearings as part of the disaster investigation, Manchin said, "I would assume so. We want to dovetail them with the federal [hearings].
"We want to work with the federal government," the governor said. "We want to work with Congress."
This week's disaster comes four years after a dozen miners died in an explosion at International Coal Group's Sago Mine in Upshur County, the first in a series of major mining accidents that claimed 28 lives in 2006 and 2007.
After years of improvements in coal-mine safety, Bush administration budget cuts and a focus away from tough enforcement eroded MSHA's policing of the industry. The rising death toll prompted lawmakers to pass the 2006 MINER Act, the first major reforms in safety standards in 30 years.
Unsuccessful rescue efforts at Upper Big Branch were made all the more heartbreaking because the 2006 law focused on faster emergency response and new technologies meant to help miners survive and escape from explosions and fires.
While the Massey mine had blast-proof and airtight rescue chambers, extra emergency breathing devices and a somewhat improved communications system, none of it was enough to protect the miners from what investigators believe was a methane explosion made far worse by explosive coal dust underground.
Federal and state regulators had cited the Upper Big Branch operation repeatedly for ventilation problems and for allowing the buildup of coal dust, but it will be months before any definitive conclusions about what actually triggered the explosion.
At about 2:30 p.m. Friday, MSHA, state regulators and Massey management sent rescue teams back into the mine after it appeared that nitrogen being pumped into the tunnels was pushing high levels of carbon monoxide back out of the sprawling maze of underground tunnels.
About eight hours earlier, rescue teams had been forced to retreat again out of the mine after they encountered a large amount of smoke from a fire near the mine's longwall section.
That development was another major setback in a campaign already riddled with hurdles, and the situation grew more desperate by the hour as the rescue operation in Southern West Virginia stretched into its fifth day.
"Not a whole lot has really gone our way," a clearly frustrated Stricklin told reporters Friday.
During a mission into the mine that started at about 12:45 a.m. Friday, two specially trained and equipped rescue teams found one refuge chamber in the mine that had not been used, but could not reach a second chamber. They were not able to get to the second refuge chamber within 96 hours of Monday's explosion -- the amount of time the chambers are supposed to keep people alive, and a deadline that rescuers had committed to with the miners' families.
Since Monday evening, the national media had staked out the scene to cover the dramatic rescue effort, the mourning of families who lost loved ones and hammer away at questions about Massey's safety record and the various controversies surrounding company CEO Don Blankenship.
In various rounds of media interviews, Blankenship had defended his company and in a Thursday letter to Massey shareholders, he insisted any suggestion by the media that the disaster was caused by "a willful disregard for safety regulations are completely unfounded."
After the rescue teams were pulled out Friday morning, workers began to pump nitrogen into the mine. The nitrogen reduces the oxygen level, which should make the air less combustible and put out the fire.
When asked why nitrogen wasn't put in earlier, Stricklin said it was, yet again, a change of plans.
"The plan was to put nitrogen in if [gases in the mine] came close to the explosive range. What we didn't expect was there to be smoke from a fire, and that changed what we had to do," he said.
In an e-mail message, though, a Department of Labor spokesman said that Massey had "dragged its feet" in having the nitrogen delivered to the mine site.
"We asked the company for it two days ago," said department spokesman Carl Fillichio. "We had to keep asking for it."
On Thursday, rescue teams were pulled from the mine after a three-hour mission that got them within 1,000 feet of a refuge chamber where they hoped the miners took shelter. But the rescuers were called back from the mine Thursday morning after repeated sampling showed unsafe air quality that could cause another explosion.
Stricklin said Thursday the explosion filled the mine with an "explosive mixture" of high levels of carbon monoxide and methane, along with low levels of oxygen.
"It tells us it was a very violent explosion," he said.
Any chance of survival the miners had hinged on using self-contained self-rescuers, or SCSRs, to make their way to refuge chambers stocked with enough air, food and water to last four days.
An SCSR is a breathing apparatus that generates about an hour's worth of oxygen that each miner carries. In the event of a catastrophe, miners are trained to first try to get out of the mine. If they can't, the next step is to make their way to a rescue chamber and hunker down.
"With the concentrations of gas we've seen throughout the entire mine ... there's no way that life could be sustained in that kind of atmosphere, even for a short period of time," Stricklin said.
Stricklin also described the scene rescuer crews saw when they went underground.
"There's destruction just about everywhere," he said. "It was a violent explosion."
Officials had being especially careful all week, at least in part because of the deaths of mine rescue crew members in a secondary mine explosion in Kentucky in 1976 and in a follow-up pillar collapse, or burst, just three years ago at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah.
"We have to do what we think is right," Stricklin said. "We have to take away any possibility of another explosion."
Just hours after the explosion -- reported to have occurred at about 3 p.m. Monday -- rescuers searched parts of the mine, but by Tuesday morning were forced to pull out when they detected toxic and highly explosive gas levels underground. Before they were pulled out, searchers were able to check one refuge chamber, which was empty.
However, they did discover that three SCSRs had been removed from emergency stockpiles, leading rescuers to believe that at least some miners had survived the initial blast. Staff writers Kathryn Gregory and Gary Harki contributed to this report. Reach Ken Ward Jr. at email@example.com or 304-348-1702. Reach Andrew Clevenger at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-348-1723.