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MONTCOAL, W.Va. -- Rescuers at the site of the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in more than two decades likely won't be able to resume the search for four missing miners until at least Wednesday evening, officials said this afternoon.
Gov. Joe Manchin said it would take at least that long for crews to drill boreholes into the mine to ventilate poison gases and make the underground environment safe for rescuers to resume their search.
Manchin also promised to hold a public hearing as part of the investigation into Monday afternoon's explosion that killed 25 miners at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County.
During a news briefing shortly after noon, Manchin said rescuers who have been deep inside the mine described mine railcar tracks that were "twisted like a pretzel."
"It's quite evident that something went very wrong here," said Kevin Stricklin, administrator for coal mine safety at the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, who joined Manchin at the briefing.
Tuesday afternoon, the state Medical Examiner identified the first seven victims of the disaster: Steven J. Harrah, 40; William R. Lynch, 59; Jason Atkins, 25; Benny Ray Willingham, 61; Carl Accord, 52; Deward Allan Scott, 58; and Robert E. Clark, 41.
Rescuers were pulled out of the mine early today because of dangerously high levels of methane, and crews were beginning the process of drilling boreholes to vent the explosive gases and make it safe for rescuers to return underground.
The holes will be drilled in three places where the four missing miners are most likely going to be -- near the mining wall and inside the rescue chamber, said Jimmy Gianato, state director of the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. The holes have to be vented as they are drilled down and pipes have to be inserted to seal off the layers of mined-out area between solid rock, Manchin said.
The rescue teams searched past the point where they were endangering their own lives, Stricklin said. They reached the first of two rescue chambers in the mine before methane levels became too high to continue, he said.
Miners have enough food and water to last 96 hours, he said.
"As soon as we can send rescue teams back in the mine, we'll do it," Stricklin said. "I think it's a dire situation."
Sheri McGraw, director of communications for the American Red Cross' Central West Virginia chapter, was with miners' families when state and mine officials told them that 25 miners have been found dead so far.
"I just don't think there is much hope held out at all [with the families]," McGraw said. "They made it clear to the families that it is not a good situation in there and probably not survivable."
When the families were told the latest news, there were all sorts of reactions, she said.
"I think in a situation like this, everybody acts differently," McGraw said. "Some people go blank, some break down and cry, some rage and are angry. It was all of this all at the same time."
Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat who has represented the area in Congress for more than 30 years, traveled to the scene to stand vigil with the families of the missing 19 miners. Rahall said he and Manchin had just visited with the miners' families.
"There is a great deal of comfort being bestowed on them right now," Rahall said at a 6 a.m. press conference. "All things considered they are strong."
One man, a family member of a victim of the Sago disaster, drove down to be with the families, he said.
"He is able to talk to them in a way very few could," Manchin said.
Though names have not been released, three members of one family all died in the disaster, Manchin said. Another member of the family was also in the mine, but survived, he said. That man lost his son, nephew and older brother, said Manchin, who lost an uncle in the Farmington Mine disaster in 1968.
One of the four men still missing was believed to be running the longwall miner deep in the mine, Manchin said. The others were believed to be in another section, deep in the mine.
Gianato said that some emergency breathing devices were missing from a storage cache deep in the mine. Rescuers are operating under the assumption that trapped miners may have grabbed those to help them survive until help arrived, he said.
The accident occurred at about 3 p.m. Monday at Massey Energy subsidiary Performance Coal Co.'s Upper Big Branch Mine-South.
Stricklin said at a briefing just after 2 a.m. Tuesday that 25 miners were killed in the explosion.
The explosion is the deadliest mine disaster in the United States since 1984, when 27 people were killed at a Utah mine.
Stricklin said the explosion is believed to have occurred near shift change as a crew was exiting the operation in a mantrip, an underground mine vehicle.
There were nine miners on the mantrip, Manchin said at a 4 a.m. press conference after meeting with the miners' families. Of those, seven died and two survived and are in the hospital, he said. One of the seven died at the hospital, he said.