TALLMANSVILLE — Two rescue teams were working underground Monday evening, trying to reach 13 miners trapped when a massive explosion rocked an Upshur County coal mine early Monday morning.
The miners were believed to be about 10,000 feet from the entrance of the Sago Mine and 260 feet underground.
There was no way of knowing if they were dead or alive, because the explosion cut off all communication with the surface.
Rescuers were about 4,800 feet into the mine late Monday, the company said, or about halfway to the trapped miners.
Rescuers were forced to use hand tools and walk through the mine because any machinery could spark another explosion.
A third team began drilling a hole Monday evening to where the miners are supposed to have been working. They hope to test the air quality through the air shaft and try to drop a listening device into the mine, said Gene Kitts, ICG vice president of mining services.
Drilling started about at 10:30 p.m. and was expected to take between four and six hours.
The former Anker West Virginia Mining Co. mine, which has a history of safety violations, was acquired two months ago by International Coal Group. It is several miles south of Buckhannon in the hamlet of Sago along the Buckhannon River.
The explosion took place at approximately 6:30 a.m., according to company officials. The mine had been closed for almost two days and reopened a half-hour before the explosion.
Five men were able to escape the blast. They had entered the mine several minutes after the crew that became trapped.
Four miners re-entered the mine shortly after the explosion and reached 9,000 feet, where the air was too contaminated for them to continue, Kitts said. The would-be rescuers did not encounter any roof falls or significant rubble, he said.
At least five rescue teams were at the scene by Monday evening. At first they could not enter the mine because of carbon monoxide, but by 6 p.m. the air quality had improved and rescue teams began to work, Kitts said.
The missing miners carried enough oxygen to last about one hour. The mine’s fans were working, but no one knows if fresh air was making it to the trapped miners. They are trained to barricade themselves in case of such an explosion.
More than 200 family members and friends stood vigil at Sago Baptist Church, a half-mile from the mine site. Some watched the mine entrance from the church’s tiny porch, while others lined up on the Buckhannon River road that separated them from the mine.
They struggled to maintain hope amid reports of the ferocious explosion.
“I’m going to stay here until he comes out, one way another,” said Judy Shackelford of Arthurdale. She said her brother, Terry Helms of Newburg, was trapped in the mine. Helms was a fire boss and worked in the mines all his life, she said.
“If he’s in there, I know he’s keeping everyone’s spirits up,” said his niece Michelle Mowser of Cheat Lake. “He’s never going to work there again. The money’s good, but it’s not worth it.”
Several miners with blackened faces stood with shell-shocked expressions across from the mine Monday afternoon. They talked to fellow miners and family members but were told by company officials not to speak with the media.
Once an hour, family members filed into the church for an update from company officials. Their worries and frustrations were obvious during an update early Monday afternoon. They asked if air was getting to their loved ones and if the rescue teams had started their work.
In response, company Vice President Roger Nicholson said rescue efforts had not started yet because a backup crew hadn’t arrived.
“Even if they were here, the gases being exhausted would prevent them from going onward,” he said. The crowd gasped.
“Oh, dear God!” one woman cried.
The early-morning explosion rattled windows as far away as French Lick several miles to the south and Buckhannon 5 miles north.
Though the explosion took place around 6:30 a.m., Upshur County 911 didn’t receive a call until shortly before 8 a.m.
Company officials said they called federal, state and mine safety officials starting at 7:30 a.m., before they called 911. Mine officials are better able to respond to mine accidents, they said. Because of the holiday, they had a difficult time assembling the mine rescue crews, they said.
Kitts defended the mine’s safety history, saying it was no different than others.
“This mine has some history of roof conditions, roof falls and such,” Kitt said. “But it’s not unlike most other mines.”
Mine safety officials and experts said that early indications are that the blast was not a methane gas explosion, but was instead caused by the ignition of coal dust.
Terry Farley, an administrator with the state Office of Coal Miners’ Health, Safety and Training, said that his agency had reports that the stoppings — internal walls used to direct underground mine ventilation — were blown off by the explosion.
That would tend to indicate a dust explosion, rather than a methane blast, said Davitt McAteer, who was assistant secretary of labor for mine safety and health during the Clinton administration.
McAteer said dust explosions are generally much more powerful — sometimes 10 times more powerful — than methane blasts.
Company officials said they were not aware of any methane problems at the mine.
A fire boss inspected the mine an hour before the mine reopened and found no problems, Kitts said.
Kitts mentioned two ways the explosion may have started — lightning or a spark from mining machinery — but said no one can be sure until the investigation is complete. He said miners would have switched the machinery at the beginning of their shift.
Gov. Joe Manchin, who was in Atlanta on Monday to attend the Sugar Bowl, cut his visit short to return to West Virginia to gather with family members at the mine site. “We’re doing everything humanly possible,” he said shortly after landing at the airport in Clarksburg on Monday evening. He later spoke to family members at the church.
Manchin is from Farmington, site of West Virginia’s worst mining disaster.
Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., also visited the site.
Company officials declined to release the names of the 13 miners. Some family members shared their names and stories, while others shunned the media, held each other and walked an endless loop from church to road and back.
Melba Black of Sago organized food and shelter for families at Sago Baptist Church. Her husband also works in the mine and was called out as a member of a local fire department. “They just changed his shift,” she said. “That could have been him.”
It is the worst mining disaster anyone can remember in Upshur County, said Bucky Casto of Buckhannon. Casto, a retired miner, said his nephew, George Hamner Jr., was trapped in the mine.
Mac Davis of Barbour County is another former miner who awaited word of a loved one trapped in the mine. Davis said one reason he quit mining was the relaxed attitude toward safety in many mines, especially with the recent coal boom. “If they don’t do something, there’s going to be a lot more accidents like this,” he said.
Staff writer Ken Ward contributed to this story. To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.
To see transcripts of the Sago mine interviews, please visit http://www.wvgazette.com/static/sago/