Massey Energy: 25 dead in W.Va. mine explosion
(AP) – 16 minutes ago
MONTCOAL, W.Va. — Massey Energy says 25 dead in West Virginia mine explosion in worst U.S. mine disaster since 1984. Spokesman Jeff Gillenwater says four are missing and the rescue mission has been halted.
THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. Check back soon for further information. AP's earlier story is below.
MONTCOAL, W.Va. (AP) — An explosion rocked a remote coal mine with a history of safety problems, killing 12 workers and trapping at least 10 others more than a thousand feet underground in the worst U.S. mine disaster since 2006.
Rescuers were making their way early Tuesday to the area where the miners were believed trapped at Massey Energy Co.'s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine, where the blast occurred around 3 p.m. Monday, said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"It's important for us to try to get to the survivors as quickly as possible," said Stricklin.
He said officials hoped the miners survived the initial blast and were able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for them to live for four days. There was some confusion about how many miners were still unaccounted for, which federal officials were trying to straighten out.
At the Marsh Fork Worship Center in nearby Eunice, the church doors stood open and a big sign outside read "Pray for Our Miners."
"You just feel helpless," said Toby Hilderbrand, who was waiting for word about his wife's uncle, Ricky Workman, 51, of Coalcord, who was among the miners that had not been accounted for. "There's nothing you can do but pray, but at times like this the community really comes together."
Though the cause of the blast was not known, the operation about 30 miles south of Charleston has a history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane gas, safety officials said.
Miners were leaving on a vehicle that takes them in and out of the mine's long shaft when a crew ahead of them felt a blast of air and went back to investigate, Stricklin said.
They found nine workers, seven of whom were dead. Two others were injured. Early Tuesday, Stricklin raised the death toll to 12.
Benny R. Willingham, 62, who was five weeks away from retiring, was among those killed, said his sister-in-law Sheila Prillaman.
He had mined for 30 years, the last 17 with Massey, and planned to take his wife on a cruise to the Virgin Islands next month, she said.
"Benny was the type — he probably wouldn't have stayed retired long," Prillaman said. "He wasn't much of a homebody."
Prillaman said family members were angry because they learned of Willingham's death after reading it on a list Massey posted, instead of being contacted by the company, which said it wouldn't release names until next of kin were notified.
Officials do not believe that the roof collapsed, but two other crews and a safety inspector who had been working alone were believed trapped about a mile and a half inside the mine.
Stricklin, an administrator for Coal Mine Safety and Health, said 10 miners were trapped. But MSHA director Joe Main said in an interview with The Associated Press that there could be more and officials were trying to sort it out. In a news release, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said 17 miners were missing.
Distraught family members were briefed and taken to a Massey building off-limits to the media.
"We want to assure the families of all the miners we are taking every action possible to locate and rescue those still missing," Massey CEO Don Blankenship, said in a statement.
Massey Energy, a publicly traded company based in Richmond, Va., has 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee, according to the company's Web site. It ranks among the nation's top five coal producers and is among the industry's most profitable. It has a spotty safety record.
In the past year, federal inspectors have fined the company more than $382,000 for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment at Upper Big Branch, which is run by subsidiary Performance Coal Co. The violations also cover failing to follow the plan, allowing combustible coal dust to pile up, and having improper firefighting equipment.
The mine has had three other fatalities in the last dozen years. Monday's blast was the worst U.S. mine disaster since the Sago explosion, also in West Virginia, which also killed 12.
Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining, and federal records say the Eagle coal seam releases up to 2 million cubic feet of methane gas into the Upper Big Branch mine every 24 hours, which is a large amount, said Dennis O'Dell, health and safety director for the United Mine Workers labor union.
The colorless, odorless gas is often sold to American consumers to heat homes and cook meals. In mines, giant fans are used to keep methane concentrations below certain levels. If concentrations are allowed to build up, the gas can explode with a spark roughly similar to the static charge created by walking across a carpet in winter, as at Sago.
Since Sago, federal and state regulators have required mine operators to store extra oxygen supplies. Upper Big Branch uses containers that can generate about an hour of breathable air, and all miners carry a container on their belts besides the stockpiles inside the mine.
Rescuers trying to reach the trapped miners found evidence that the workers took emergency oxygen supplies from a cache in the mine, Stricklin said. There are two rescue chambers near the blast site and another two a bit farther away.
West Virginia requires all underground mines to have wireless communications and tracking systems designed to survive explosions and other disasters. However, Stricklin said much of the network near the missing men was likely destroyed in the explosion.
Blankenship said the names of the dead and injured would not be released until next-of-kin were notified.
"West Virginians are tough, we will bind together," said U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall, whose district includes where the mine is located.
The mine, which cannot be seen from the road, has 19 openings and roughly 7-foot ceilings. Inside, it's crisscrossed with railroad tracks used for hauling people and equipment. It is located in a mine-laced swath of Raleigh and Boone counties that is the heart of West Virginia's coal country.
The seam produced 1.2 million tons of coal in 2009, according to the mine safety agency, and has about 200 employees, most of whom work underground on different shifts.
A bulk of the coal is removed with a machine called a longwall miner that uses a cutting head to move back and forth across the working face somewhat like a 1,000-foot-long deli slicer.
Gov. Joe Manchin was out of town, but planned to come back, according to his office. President Barack Obama spoke Monday night with Manchin to express his condolences and to offer any assistance, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs said.
In each of the last three years, Massey has had multiple operations cited by MSHA as repeat violators of safety and health rules and ordered to improve their conditions. Upper Big Branch was not one of them.
Last year, the number of miners killed on the job in the U.S. fell for a second straight year to 34, the fewest since officials began keeping records nearly a century ago. That was down from the previous low of 52 in 2008.
Associated Press Writers Vicki Smith in Eunice, Tim Huber in Charleston and Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this report.
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