MONTCOAL, W.Va. -- Rescue teams were rushing back into Massey Energy's Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County early this afternoon in a fourth desperate attempt to find four miners who remain unaccounted for following a horrific explosion four days ago in Raleigh County.
Two eight-person teams were dispatched deep into the mine, where they hoped to find that the four miners had made it to an airtight rescue chamber that could have allowed them to survive since the disaster 96 hours ago.
"They are gearing up and going underground basically as we speak," Kevin Stricklin, coal administrator for the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, said during a 2:30 p.m. briefing.
MSHA, state officials and Massey decided to send 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 mine.
Stricklin said it could take 3 to 4 1/2 hours for the rescuers to make it to the area where they believe the miners could be.
During the briefing, Stricklin also delivered bad news that a borehole that was drilled into the mine near the rescue chamber hit a solid block of coal -- making it useless for inserting a camera to try to locate the miners if they are in that area.
"We can put a camera down in it, but there will be nothing to see," Stricklin said.
Earlier today, rescue teams were 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, and efforts to rescue the miners still unaccounted for grew more desperate as the rescue operation in Southern West Virginia neared the end of its fourth full day.
"Not a whole lot has really gone our way," Stricklin said.
During an earlier mission into the mine that started at about 12:45 a.m. today, 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 will not be 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. That would be about 3 p.m. today.
Technically, the 96-hour limit is based on having at least 15 people inside the refuge chamber, so it's possible fewer people could survive longer.
"The big decision, the very tough decision, was to pull the rescue team out and not put them in harm's way based on the smoke we saw," Stricklin said early in the day.
The massive explosion deep inside the mine has already claimed 25 lives, making it the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1984. Two more miners were injured and were taken to local hospitals.
Stricklin said that the search is still a rescue operation and that will not change until they learn if the last refuge chamber has been deployed.
"The bottom line is this, we told [the families] that the first chamber was checked along the long wall and it was not deployed," Manchin said. "They've got one opportunity, we've all got one opportunity, a sliver of hope, a miracle if you will, that the other chamber has been deployed."