MONTCOAL - Rescuers began a race against the clock late Monday night, trying to find miners who remained unaccounted for at a Massey Energy mine after a huge explosion rocked the Southern West Virginia operation and killed at least 12 workers.
Details remained sketchy for hours after the disaster, which occurred at about 3 p.m. at Massey Energy subsidiary Performance Coal Co.'s Upper Big Branch Mine-South in Raleigh County.
Kevin Stricklin, administrator for coal at the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the explosion is believed to have occurred near shift change as a crew was exiting the operation in an underground mine vehicle.
The miners were thought to be about 1.5 miles from the mine entrance, and rescuers were hoping that they made it to one of two nearby airtight chambers, which would give them enough air, food and water to last up to four days, Stricklin said.
But the blast knocked out all underground communications, and there was conflicting information late Monday night about whether any of the nine rescue teams said to be on site had actually entered the mine yet.
"Our prayers go out to the families of the miners," said Massey CEO Don Blankenship. "We want to assure the families of all the miners we are taking every action possible to locate and rescue those still missing."
The disaster comes just four years after a series of mine accidents in West Virginia and Kentucky - including one that brought criminal prosecution of a Massey subsidiary - killed 19 workers and prompted the first reform of U.S. mine safety laws in 30 years.
Mine safety experts who were in contact with state and federal investigators said initial reports are that the explosion involved methane that built up inside a sealed area of the mine or that leaked through mine seals.
Such a scenario would be a repeat of the 2006 Sago and Darby disasters in West Virginia and Kentucky, which claimed 17 lives and prompted regulators to take a closer look at the safety of the vast sealed areas of underground coal mines for the first time in years.
"Seals can be deadly if they are not maintained and monitored properly," said Tony Oppegard, a former MSHA staff and longtime mine safety expert from Kentucky.
Outside the Upper Big Branch site, witnesses reported seeing smoke billowing from the mine, and several miners apparently escaped after donning their emergency breathing devices.
Stricklin said that a crew of miners exiting on a mantrip felt a large blast of air. The men were not seriously harmed and went back to try to rescue their fellow workers, Stricklin said. They found nine workers, seven of whom were dead. Two others were airlifted out of the area for medical treatment, he said.
At a briefing at midnight, Stricklin said the death toll had risen to 12.
More than two dozen ambulances were staged in Whitesville, and crowds of residents lined the streets waiting for word on the potential disaster. Authorities had gathered families of the miners at a Baptist church in Whitesville and at a training building on the mine property, officials said.
"If you're from here, you're part of a coal mining family," said Grace Lafferty of nearby Harper. "You know a lot of people who work here. It takes your breath away, your heart drops and you have that empty feeling."
One miner from the Massey operation declined to give his name, but said, "This is scary in more ways than one."
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.
"We've been through this many times before, and we know West Virginians will band together to get through it, but it doesn't get any easier," Rahall said.
Gov. Joe Manchin was headed back to West Virginia from out of state, but issued a statement saying, "I just spoke with President Obama and he has promised to make every asset available to help us and we will be in contact as the rescue continues.
"We are all working diligently together and I ask that everyone pray for the miners, their families and our rescue teams," Manchin said.
One miner was transported to Charleston Area Medical Center via a HealthNet helicopter around 6 p.m., said CAMC spokeswoman Elizabeth Pellegrin. Hospital staff was treating him in the Intensive Care Unit, she said.
"We're hoping that we're able to treat all of them - that they make it out and we're able to treat them," she said.
MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said at least nine specially trained and equipped mine rescue teams were at the site, but she could not confirm whether any of them had actually entered the mine.
"Rescue efforts are underway," MSHA said in a short prepared statement.
The Upper Big Branch Mine-South employs about 200 workers and last year produced about 1.2 million tons of coal, according to company disclosures filed with MSHA.
In seven of the last 10 years, the mine has recorded a non-fatal injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations, according to MSHA statistics.
Between 2008 and last year, safety violations at the operation more than doubled and fines issued by MSHA tripled, according to agency records.
One miner was killed at the operation in a July 2003 electrical accident and another in a March 2001 roof fall, according to MSHA records.
In January 2006, two miners died in a fire at Massey's Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine. Eventually, Massey's Aracoma Coal Co. subsidiary pleaded guilty to 10 criminal mine safety violations and paid $2.5 million in fines related to that fatal fire.
On its corporate Web site, Richmond, Va.-based Massey says that in 2009, the company recorded "an all-time best" non-fatal accident rate and was the "6th consecutive year and the 17th year out of the past 20 years in which Massey's safety performance was stronger than the industry average."
Reactions to Monday's explosion
"I am praying for these miners, their loved ones, and for those who still may be trapped. Tragically West Virginians have considerable experience dealing with these disasters in the coal mines. And we know every second counts. My utmost hope is that our experienced and well trained mine rescue teams and first responders will be able to keep further casualties to a minimum."
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-W.Va
"This is devastating news and our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the miners who have died. We are offering everything we can to assist those families at this time.
"For those families who are still waiting for news on their missing loved ones, I want them to know that we are doing everything possible in cooperation with federal officials and the company to get our miners out as quickly and safely as possible.
"I just spoke with President Obama and he has promised to make every asset available to help us and we will be in contact as the rescue continues. We are all working diligently together and I ask that everyone pray for the miners, their families and our rescue teams."
Gov. Joe Manchin