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MONTCOAL, W.Va. -- Rescuers were hoping late Wednesday night that toxic gas levels inside a Massey Energy mine in Raleigh County would soon drop, so crews could safely resume the search for four missing miners in what is already the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than a quarter-century.
Rescue leaders and government officials said hope was fading, but that crews would continue drilling ventilation holes into the Upper Big Branch Mine to try to make it safe for specially trained and equipped mine rescue teams.
"We just can't take any chances," said Kevin Stricklin, coal administrator for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, an agency that lost rescue workers during similar efforts in 1976 at the Scotia Mine in Kentucky and in 2007 at Crandall Canyon in Utah.
Crews have drilled one ventilation hole into the mine and another was about halfway there, as workers rushed to try to rid the mine of dangerous gases so specially trained teams could resume searching for the miners.
Rescue crews had previously said they planned a third and fourth ventilation hole, and Stricklin announced that Massey plans to drill an additional ventilation hole and lower cameras near the location of a rescue chamber to see if the miners can be located.
Stricklin said air monitoring for an initial borehole at first showed "extremely high" levels of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, very low levels of oxygen, and methane concentrations that were just below the explosive range.
"We're dealing with numbers that are way beyond what we would normally see in a mine," Stricklin said.
"The numbers don't surprise me," he said. "We're hoping that someone had the ability to get to that chamber. That would be the only way anyone could survive. There's always hope, but it's miniscule."
Later, Stricklin said readings at the top of the first hole have dropped to a point where it would be safe to proceed. But officials want to be sure that levels have also dropped inside the mine before sending in the six-person rescue teams.
During an afternoon briefing, Gov. Joe Manchin repeated his earlier assertions that he, the rescue crews and the families were maintaining a "sliver of hope" that the four missing miners made it to one of two airtight chambers that rescue crews have not yet been able to check.
"The odds are not in our favor, because of the horrendous blast we had," Manchin said during a briefing early in the day.
Twenty-five miners died in the Monday explosion, which officials believe was fueled by methane and perhaps made much worse by coal dust. Two miners remain hospitalized following the worst U.S. coal-mining disaster in a quarter-century. Their conditions have not been released, but Manchin said one of them was in intensive care.