No Survivors Found After West Virginia Mine Disaster
MONTCOAL, W.Va. — An agonizing four-day wait came to a tragic end early Saturday morning when rescue workers failed to find any survivors in an underground mine after a huge explosion earlier this week.
The news at the Upper Big Branch mine about 30 miles south of Charleston brought the death toll to 29 in the country’s worst mine disaster in four decades.
“We did not receive the miracle we were praying for,” said Gov. Joe Manchin III, looking somber, his voice barely audible. “This journey has ended and now the healing will start.”
The announcement closed a grim Appalachian ritual and the third major mining disaster in the state in the past four years.
Grim faced and exhausted, rescue workers emerged from the mine around midnight after spending much of the evening wending their way through a labyrinth of cross-passageways more than 1,000 feet underground.
It took about three hours before the rescue team could get to all the men, mining officials said. The names of the dead were not released. Twenty-eight of the dead were Massey employees, and one was a contract worker, a company spokesman said.
After Monday’s explosion left 25 dead and 4 missing, state and federal officials tried to tamp down expectations, saying it was highly unlikely that any of the missing miners would be found alive. But a sliver of hope remained until early Saturday morning, when state officials said that the rescue mission was finally shifting to a recovery mission.
Crews will soon begin the bleak task of trying to recover all 22 bodies still inside the mine. Seven other bodies were recovered after the blast Monday and two other miners were injured.
Rescue efforts had been an agonizing 100-hour exercise in frustration as the teams repeatedly inched their way through tangled debris and fallen rock only to have to withdraw because of explosively high levels of methane and carbon monoxide.
Above ground, the miners’ families waited for word. Passing much of the week sequestered from the news media, they huddled together in an open-air warehouse on the mine’s sprawling property, eating pizza, whispering consolations to each other, and sometimes praying.
While rescue efforts continued, company and state officials had been reluctant to release the names of the dead and missing, a move that angered many families longing for closure.
The death toll caused by Monday’s explosion was the highest in an American mine since a 1970 explosion killed 38 at Finley Coal Company, in Hyden, Ky. The blast at Upper Big Branch comes four years after a pair of other West Virginia mine disasters — an explosion that killed 12 miners at the Sago mine and a fire that killed two at the Aracoma Alma coal mine.
“We remained hopeful the four missing miners would have been found alive,” Don Blankenship, the chief executive of Massey Energy, the mine’s operator, said in a statement. “I personally met with many of the families throughout the week and share their grief at this very painful time.”
In 2008, the Aracoma Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey, agreed to pay $4.2 million in criminal fines and civil penalties and to plead guilty to several safety violations related to that fire.
This week’s disaster came as a particular surprise because last year there were only 34 mining deaths, a record low.
Rescue workers described the blast as overwhelming — like nothing they had ever witnessed. Rail lines were twisted like pretzels, they said. Mining machines were blown to pieces. The conditions underground were such a mess after the explosion that is was only late Friday that rescuers realized that they had walked past the bodies of the four missing miners on the first day without seeing, a federal mine safety official said.
This week’s blast comes after a year in which the Upper Big Branch mine had repeated problems with methane buildups. Since April 2009, federal regulators have cited the mine eight times for “substantial” violations relating to the mine’s methane control plans, according to the records.
In two instances, the regulators found the mine operator was calibrating methane monitors every three months even though it is supposed to be done every 31 days. The delays in attending to the monitors meant they could not properly detect the gas, a risk inspectors said could lead to severe injuries or prove fatal.
On April 30, 2009, federal regulators found that the mine had failed to follow methane-related safety precautions. Regulators stopped work in a section of the mine until the ventilation was corrected.
Kevin Stricklin, of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said he planned an aggressive investigation of the disaster. “I can tell you this: No stone will be left unturned,” he said.
President Obama earlier on Friday expressed his condolences to the families of those killed or injured in the mine explosion. In remarks in the Rose Garden, he said “it’s clear that more needs to be done” about mine safety, and he asked for a full report on what went wrong.
He said that he had spoken on Wednesday to members of the Davis family, who had lost three relatives in the explosion — Timothy Davis, Sr., and his two nephews, Cory Davis and Josh Napper.
“Mining has a long and proud history in West Virginia,” Mr. Obama said. “It is a profession that’s not without risks and danger, and the workers and their families know this, but the government and their employer know that they owe it to these employees’ families to do everything possible to ensure their safety.”
“None of the chambers had been deployed,” said Governor Manchin during the somber press conference Saturday morning, referring to the underground rescue chambers where everyone hoped the four missing miners might be. “None of our miners suffered.”
Church officials said that donations for the families of the dead miners were being accepted at the Montcoal Mining Disaster Fund, which was being run by the West Virginia Council of Churches. Governor Manchin added that said he had asked the White House for a national moment of silence Monday at 3:30.