Image: Drill and fan at mine site
Jeff Gentner  /  AP
A large drill and fan, left, work above Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine Wednesday to open a vent for gas to escape.
updated 4/7/2010 6:29:36 PM ET 2010-04-07T22:29:36

It is still too dangerous to send rescue crews into a West Virginia mine to search for four missing miners, officials said Wednesday.

Kevin Stricklin, an administrator from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said at a news conference Wednesday that the level of gases underground are still too high.

Anxious family members are clinging to what Gov. Joe Manchin has called a "sliver of hope" that the four miners might still be alive. Twenty-five deaths have been confirmed.

Crews had drilled one hole and were working on two more so searchers could eventually enter the Upper Big Branch mine after the worst U.S. mining accident in more than two decades. No sounds from the miners have been heard.

A dangerous buildup of methane gas and carbon monoxide was preventing rescuers from going back into the mine to pull out the bodies remaining inside, or to look for those still unaccounted for.

Investigators believe a buildup of methane contributed to the explosion. Operated by Massey Energy, the mine has repeatedly been cited for problems with its ventilation system, which clears away the highly combustible gas.

Like many other mine operators, Massey frequently sidesteps hefty fines by aggressively appealing safety violations at the mine, according to an Associated Press analysis of mine safety records.

Recent violations include one three months ago for fresh-air systems flowing the wrong way near two escape routes.

Video: Hoping for miracle Seven bodies were brought out after Monday afternoon's blast rocked the facility, site of the worst underground disaster in the U.S. in more than a quarter-century.

Once the mine is ventilated, teams would need four or five hours to reach the area where officials believe the miners are about 1,000 feet beneath the surface, said Chris Adkins, chief operating officer for Massey Energy Co., which owns the mine. The long section is about 20 feet wide with barely enough room to stand, a safety official said.

Searchers would have to navigate in the darkness around debris from structures shattered by the explosion and around sections of track that were "wrapped like a pretzel," said Stricklin.

"There's so much dirt and dust and everything is so dark that it's very easy, as hard as it may seem to any of us outside in this room, to walk by a body," Stricklin said.

'Hope'
Crews were also performing a seismic test Wednesday, transmitting a sound underground to alert any survivors that rescuers are coming for them. The miners are supposed to tap on the roof to signal they heard the sound — however, officials said it's a long shot because they are so deep inside the mountain.

Manchin said it could be midday before much progress is made on the four ventilation shafts.

"I don't want to give anybody any false hope, but by golly, if I'm on that side of the table, and that's my father or my brother or my uncle or my cousins, I'm going to have hope," he said Tuesday.

Video: Rescue effort

The missing miners might have been able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for several days. But rescue teams earlier checked one of two chambers nearby, and it was empty. The buildup of gases prevented them from reaching the second chamber.

Officials said they were 90 percent sure of the miners' location.

Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine, was fined more than $382,000 in the past year for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment.

The company's chief executive said the mine was not unsafe, but federal regulators planned to review its many violations.

Video: Profits above safety? In an area where coal is king, people anxiously awaited word on the missing miners. One resident hung a "Praying 4 Our Miners" banner outside a home. At Libby's City Grill in nearby Whitesville, the accident was the talk at every breakfast table. Owner James Scott was grieving his own loss — his 58-year-old uncle, Deward Scott of Montcoal, was among the dead.

Neither his uncle nor his customers talked much about their work.

"I never heard anyone say anything about the mine, good or bad," James Scott said. "You just don't talk about it."

‘He loved that place’
Diana Davis said her husband, Timmy Davis, 51, died in the explosion along with his nephews, Josh Napper, 27, and Cory Davis, 20.

The elder Davis' son, Timmy Davis Jr., described his father as passionate about the outdoors and the mines. "He loved to work underground," the younger Davis said. "He loved that place." Two other family members survived the blast, he said.

Slideshow: Deadly blast On Tuesday night, about 50 mourners packed the creaky pews of St. Joseph Catholic Church, a modest building on a lonely rural road a few miles from the mine. As a flute played, and congregants prayed for the four missing miners, they also did their best to belt out hymns. Some wore their Sunday best while others wandered in wearing T-shirts, jeans and tattered baseball caps.

During pauses, some leaned over and consoled each other.

"It's such a terrible time for West Virginia, but it's so important to ask for God's help," said Bishop Michael Bransfield. "It demands our cares and it demands our prayers."

At the time of the explosion, 61 miners were in the mine, about 30 miles south of Charleston.

Blast of air
Nine 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, said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Manchin said seven of the nine were killed but two survived.

"Before you knew it, it was just like your ears stopped up. You couldn't hear. And the next thing you know, it's just like you're just right in the middle of a tornado," miner Steve Smith, who heard the explosion but was able to escape, told ABC's "Good Morning America."

In-depth look at coal mine tragedyThe chief executive of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, said Tuesday that a carbon monoxide warning was the first sign of trouble. Mine crews were checking on the alarm when they discovered an explosion had occurred.

"I don't know that we know what happened," Blankenship said.

Some may have been killed by the blast and others when they inhaled the toxic gases, Stricklin said.

He described how the rescue teams gradually descended through a long, sloping shaft where the miners were operating a huge machine that carves coal from the walls. He said the teams increasingly encountered debris from the mine's ventilation system and other materials.

Seven bodies have been recovered and identified. The names of the remaining miners were not released, but the AP was able to identify six of them through family members. Two injured miners were being treated at hospitals. Their names were not released either.

Some grieving relatives were angry because they learned their loved ones were among the dead from government officials, not from Massey Energy executives.

Michelle McKinney found out from a local official at a nearby school that her 61-year-old father, Benny R. Willingham, was among the dead. He was due to retire in five weeks after 30 years of mining.

"These guys, they took a chance every day to work" to make the mining company grow, she said. And company officials "couldn't even call us."

Blankenship said he attended briefings with family members, but largely left contact to the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and Massey representatives. He said he was in the room when relatives were notified of the full extent of the tragedy, but the scene was so emotional that he did not interact with them.

Video: Desperate hours Manchin said a Massey official apologized to family members Tuesday for not being notified of the deaths.

The death toll was the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 people died in a fire at Emery Mining Corp.'s mine in Orangeville, Utah.

"There's always danger. There's so many ways you can get hurt, or your life taken," said Gary Williams, a miner and pastor of New Life Assembly, a nearby church.

Though the situation looked bleak, the governor said miracles can happen and pointed to the 2006 Sago Mine explosion that killed 12. Crews found miner Randal McCloy Jr. alive after he was trapped for more than 40 hours in an atmosphere poisoned with carbon monoxide.

Massey Energy, a publicly traded company based in Richmond, Va., ranks among the nation's top five coal producers and is among the industry's most profitable. It has 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee.

Blankenship said the mine was "not thought to be unsafe by the agencies or the company."

"I think that what they (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) said is, 'You know, there's been a lot of debate about the ventilation.' At the times the mine operates and men are in the mine, it complies with whatever the federal and state agencies have agreed."

Stricklin said he was concerned about an initial review of the more serious violations, which indicated that "the operator was aware of some of these conditions."

Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining. In mines, giant fans are used to keep the colorless, odorless gas 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.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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