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Last bodies removed from mine

Investigators arrive at the West Virginia mine where 29 men died in an explosion last week to begin piecing together what caused the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1970.
Image: Dray Williams
Chaplain Dray Williams of Jasper, Alabama, looks over a memorial for the 29 miners who died in the explosion at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal, W.Va. Amy Sancetta / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The bodies of all 29 West Virginia coal miners killed in an explosion last week have been recovered from the mine, a spokeswoman for the state mine office said Tuesday.

Jama Jarrett said the last bodies were taken out around 2 a.m. or 3 a.m. Tuesday and the bodies were being sent to the state medical examiner for autopsies.

Recovery efforts had been stalled in previous days by volatile gases, but teams entered after the tunnels were ventilated.

On Monday, federal investigators arrived to begin piecing together what caused the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1970.

The recovery of the bodies Tuesday means the inspectors can now begin their work looking into the cause of the explosion last week.

The team from the Mine Safety and Health Administration briefed Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and MSHA director Joe Main at the mine.

Mining safety rules
The state panel that writes mining safety rules and typically reviews mine inspectors' reports after the investigations are complete said Monday it would like to join the investigators underground this time.

Richmond, Va.-based Massey has been under scrutiny for a string of safety violations at the mine, though CEO Don Blankenship has defended the company's record and disputed accusations that he puts profits ahead of safety.

Authorities have said high methane levels may have played a role in the disaster. Massey has been repeatedly cited and fined for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up.

Hours after the blast, the company flew Gov. Joe Manchin back from a Florida vacation on one of its planes, Manchin said Monday. The governor's top lawyer told him the use of the company's plane was acceptable because it was an emergency and a flight on a state plane couldn't immediately be arranged.

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Moment of silence
Beneath a sunny sky, several hundred people held hands and prayed aloud during the ceremony. Four black-ribboned wreaths were placed at the memorial, as more than a dozen family members of those killed looked on. The largest bore white roses for each miner killed, and two yellow roses for the injured. Twenty-nine yellow helmets were lined up in front of the statue, a black ribbon on each.

A bell rang 29 times for each of the fallen miners. During a moment of silence that followed, sobs could be heard both from the family and the crowd thronged around them with heads bowed.

"Our goal is to have the safest workplace in America," Manchin said. "Someone who's willing to work hard and put everything on the line to provide for themselves and their family...should expect to come home safely."

Solis attended the ceremony and echoed that sentiment, while offering condolences to the family from President Barack Obama.

"No miner should ever lose his life in order to provide for his family," Solis said. "I will do everything in my power to ensure that we prevent these kinds of tragedies."