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.