Rescuers held out slim hope Tuesday that four missing coal miners might have survived when a mine repeatedly cited for improperly venting methane gas exploded, killing 25 people in the country’s deadliest underground disaster in a quarter-century.
A day after the blast in southern West Virginia, desperate rescuers began boring into the mine in hopes of releasing poisonous gases so crews could go in search of the men.
The missing miners might have been able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for four days. But rescue teams 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.
At the time of the explosion, 61 miners were in the mine, about 30 miles south of Charleston.
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.
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.
Federal officials decided to call off the rescue after high methane gas readings in the far reaches of the mine.