While the Massey mine had blast-proof and airtight rescue chambers, extra emergency breathing devices and a somewhat improved communications system, none of it was enough to protect the miners from what investigators believe was a methane explosion made far worse by explosive coal dust underground.
Federal and state regulators had cited the Upper Big Branch operation repeatedly for ventilation problems and for allowing the buildup of coal dust, but it will be months before any definitive conclusions about what actually triggered the explosion.
At about 2:30 p.m. Friday, MSHA, state regulators and Massey management sent 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 maze of underground tunnels.
About eight hours earlier, rescue teams had been 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 in a campaign already riddled with hurdles, and the situation grew more desperate by the hour as the rescue operation in Southern West Virginia stretched into its fifth day.
"Not a whole lot has really gone our way," a clearly frustrated Stricklin told reporters Friday.
During a mission into the mine that started at about 12:45 a.m. Friday, 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 were not 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, and a deadline that rescuers had committed to with the miners' families.
Since Monday evening, the national media had staked out the scene to cover the dramatic rescue effort, the mourning of families who lost loved ones and hammer away at questions about Massey's safety record and the various controversies surrounding company CEO Don Blankenship.
In various rounds of media interviews, Blankenship had defended his company and in a Thursday letter to Massey shareholders, he insisted any suggestion by the media that the disaster was caused by "a willful disregard for safety regulations are completely unfounded."
After the rescue teams were pulled out Friday morning, workers began to pump nitrogen into the mine. The nitrogen reduces the oxygen level, which should make the air less combustible and put out the fire.
When asked why nitrogen wasn't put in earlier, Stricklin said it was, yet again, a change of plans.
"The plan was to put nitrogen in if [gases in the mine] came close to the explosive range. What we didn't expect was there to be smoke from a fire, and that changed what we had to do," he said.
In an e-mail message, though, a Department of Labor spokesman said that Massey had "dragged its feet" in having the nitrogen delivered to the mine site.
"We asked the company for it two days ago," said department spokesman Carl Fillichio. "We had to keep asking for it."
On Thursday, rescue teams were pulled from the mine after a three-hour mission that got them within 1,000 feet of a refuge chamber where they hoped the miners took shelter. But the rescuers were called back from the mine Thursday morning after repeated sampling showed unsafe air quality that could cause another explosion.
Stricklin said Thursday the explosion filled the mine with an "explosive mixture" of high levels of carbon monoxide and methane, along with low levels of oxygen.
"It tells us it was a very violent explosion," he said.
Any chance of survival the miners had hinged on using self-contained self-rescuers, or SCSRs, to make their way to refuge chambers stocked with enough air, food and water to last four days.
An SCSR is a breathing apparatus that generates about an hour's worth of oxygen that each miner carries. In the event of a catastrophe, miners are trained to first try to get out of the mine. If they can't, the next step is to make their way to a rescue chamber and hunker down.
"With the concentrations of gas we've seen throughout the entire mine ... there's no way that life could be sustained in that kind of atmosphere, even for a short period of time," Stricklin said.
Stricklin also described the scene rescuer crews saw when they went underground.
"There's destruction just about everywhere," he said. "It was a violent explosion."
Officials had being especially careful all week, at least in part because of the deaths of mine rescue crew members in a secondary mine explosion in Kentucky in 1976 and in a follow-up pillar collapse, or burst, just three years ago at the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah.
"We have to do what we think is right," Stricklin said. "We have to take away any possibility of another explosion."
Just hours after the explosion -- reported to have occurred at about 3 p.m. Monday -- rescuers searched parts of the mine, but by Tuesday morning were forced to pull out when they detected toxic and highly explosive gas levels underground. Before they were pulled out, searchers were able to check one refuge chamber, which was empty.
However, they did discover that three SCSRs had been removed from emergency stockpiles, leading rescuers to believe that at least some miners had survived the initial blast.Staff writers Kathryn Gregory and Gary Harki contributed to this report. Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702. Reach Andrew Clevenger at acleven...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1723.