Death Toll Hits 25 in West Virginia Coal Mine Blast

MONTCOAL, W.Va. — The death toll from a blast at a West Virginia coal mine rose to 25 on Tuesday, federal safety officials said, making it the worst mining accident in the United States in 25 years.

Four miners were still missing, and the officials said it was likely that those men also had been killed in the explosion on Monday.

A recovery operation was called off early Tuesday morning because high levels of methane gas made the mine unsafe for rescuers. Workers were boring holes into the mine to try to get more oxygen inside.

“The bodies will not be recovered until the mine is ventilated,” Ronald L. Wooten, the state’s mine health safety director, said at a news conference early Tuesday.

The accident was the worst in an American mine since Dec. 19, 1984, when 27 workers died in a fire at the Wilberg Mine in Orangeville, Utah, and it came just four years after federal regulators enacted a sweeping overhaul in mine safety laws. That overhaul, the first in over three decades, came after 19 miners died in a series of mine accidents in West Virginia and Kentucky — including one that brought criminal charges against a Massey subsidiary.

The explosion occurred about 3 p.m. Monday at the Upper Big Branch mine, 30 miles south of Charleston, in Raleigh County.

The mine, which employs about 200, is owned by the Massey Energy Company, based in Virginia, and operated by the Performance Coal Company.

Mine safety officials said that there were three groups of miners affected by the blast. One group consisted of nine miners who were leaving the site at the end of their shift in a vehicle known as a “mantrip.” Seven of the miners in the man trip were killed by the explosion while two others were injured and taken to the hospital by rescue workers.

A second group of 18 miners was said to be working a bit deeper in the mine, closest to the area where coal was actually being extracted. All 18 of them died.

A third group of four miners — the ones still unaccounted for — was even deeper in the mine.

The miners were all thought to be working more than 1,000 feet underground.

The explosion on Monday destroyed all communication lines inside Upper Big Branch, but Kevin Stricklin, an administrator with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said there were two rescue chambers near the blast site. If the miners could reach them, the chambers were stocked with food, water and enough air to allow them to survive four days.

There was evidence that self-contained self-rescuer packs, or SCSRs, which contain oxygen, had been taken from storage areas in the mine, Mr. Stricklin said, which had raised hopes on Monday that the miners had lived through the explosion and made it to a refuge chamber.

Mr. Stricklin said that officials did not think there had been a roof collapse, but that they did not know what had caused the explosion in the sprawling mine. Upper Big Branch, which cannot be seen from the road, has 19 openings and roughly seven-foot ceilings, federal safety officials said.

The interior is crisscrossed with railroad tracks used for hauling people and equipment. Outside are several plants where coal is prepared for shipment by train.

Emergency vehicles lined the two-lane road leading to the mine Monday night as families of the miners gathered at a building on the mine property. A church in nearby Whitesville opened its doors Monday night for a vigil.

“All we know now is, this is an awful disaster,” Representative Nick J. Rahall II said as he arrived at the mine site, which is in his district. “This is the second major disaster at a Massey site in recent years, and something needs to be done.”

In a statement, Massey’s chief executive officer, Don Blankenship, said mine rescue teams and state and federal officials were responding to the explosion. “We want to assure the families of all the miners we are taking every action possible to locate and rescue those still missing,” Mr. Blankenship said.

Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said that the mine was nonunion but that the union had dispatched a team to advise on the rescue and to help the families of the trapped or dead miners.

Michael Mayhorn, an emergency dispatcher for Boone County, said that at least 20 ambulances and three helicopters had been dispatched from nearby counties, and that the state medical examiner was heading to the scene. At least one miner was evacuated by helicopter, he said.

Dennis O’Dell, an official with the union who was in contact with state and federal safety officials, said the current theory was that the explosion might have been caused by a buildup of methane gas in a sealed-off section of the mine. A similar type of explosion occurred in the 2006 Sago mining disaster, which left 12 miners dead after trapping them underground for nearly two days.

Mr. O’Dell said some officials believed the ignition source for the explosion on Monday might have been a device that carries mine personnel to and from the work area.

For at least six of the past 10 years, federal records indicate, the Upper Big Branch mine has recorded an injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations. The records also show that the mine had 458 violations in 2009, with a total of $897,325 in safety penalties assessed against it last year. It has paid $168,393 in safety penalties.

“Massey’s commitment to safety has long been questioned in the coalfields,” said Tony Oppegard, a lawyer and mine safety advocate from Kentucky.

Those concerns were heightened in 2006 when an internal memo written by Mr. Blankenship became public. In the memo, Mr. Blankenship instructed the company’s underground mine superintendents to place coal production first.

“This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that the coal pays the bills,” he wrote.

Ellen Smith, the editor of Mine Safety and Health News, said the Upper Big Branch mine was the site of two fatalities in the previous 10 years.

Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, away on vacation in Florida, was returning to the state, said his spokesman Matt Turner. “This is devastating news,” Mr. Manchin said in a statement, “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.”

President Obama spoke with the governor about the accident and offered federal help.

More than 100,000 coal miners have been killed in accidents in the United States since 1900, but the number of fatalities has fallen sharply in recent decades, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration. As late as the 1940s, it was not unusual to have more than 1,000 mining deaths a year; in 2009, there were 35 mining deaths, agency records show.

Mining remains dangerous work, as the disasters that seem to befall small Appalachian towns every few years attest. And there are persistent alarms raised about mines using antiquated safety equipment, lax enforcement and a culture that discourages safety complaints.

After the 2006 Sago mine accident, state officials said they believed those miners could have survived the blast in an abandoned section of the mine if the seals cordoning off the area where it occurred had been properly installed.

Federal regulations passed after the Sago disaster increased the monitoring of air quality in active and sealed sections of the mines to avoid methane build up. The new regulations also required mine operators to install stronger barriers between active and non-active sections of mines.

State officials said the mine was a long-wall mining operation, which is one of three major underground coal-mining methods. The method often uses a steel plow, or rotation drum, which is pulled mechanically back and forth across a face of coal that is usually several hundred feet long. The loosened coal falls onto a conveyor for removal from the mine.


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