MONTCOAL, W.Va. -- Crews were drilling early Wednesday to ventilate toxic gas from a West Virginia coal mine shattered by a deadly explosion, trying to make a section of it safe enough for rescuers to search for four missing miners as hope for their survival grew dim.
Two days after the blast killed 25 and left two hospitalized, the buildup of methane gas and carbon monoxide was too dangerous for anyone to enter and look for the last of the missing or to recover the bodies of 18 known dead. Seven bodies were brought out after
Monday afternoon's blast rocked the Upper Big Branch Mine, 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 Kevin Stricklin, an administrator from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"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.
Crews also will perform 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.
Gov. Joe 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.
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 found it empty. Unsafe conditions prevented them from reaching the second.
Massey Energy Co. 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 violations, many of which involved venting methane gas. If the odorless, colorless gas is not kept at safe levels, a small spark can ignite it.
In the area about 30 miles south of Charleston where coal is king, people anxiously awaited word on the missing.
Larry Asbury's son is on a mine rescue team. Asbury joined about 50 mourners who packed the creaky pews of the modest St. Joseph Catholic Church a few miles from the disaster to honor the victims and pray that the missing turn up safe.
"The coal community is coming together and praying for miners and their families," he said. "It's just so important to show the community this kind of support."
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. Two other family members survived, he said.
During pauses at Tuesday's service at St. Joseph's, 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 J. Bransfield.
At the time of the explosion, 61 miners were in the mine.
Nine were leaving on a vehicle that takes them in and out of the shaft when a crew ahead of them felt a blast of air and went back to investigate, said MSHA administrator Stricklin.
"I don't know that we know what happened," the chief executive of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, told The Associated Press.
He said the chances of miners making it out of the violent explosion alive were dim, and "I think it dims every day."
Some may have been killed by the blast and others when they inhaled the toxic gases, Stricklin said.
Some grieving relatives were angry because they learned their loved ones were among the dead from government officials, not from Massey executives.
Michelle McKinney found out from a local official 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."
Manchin said a Massey official apologized to family members Tuesday for not being notified of the deaths.
Blankenship 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. He left others in the company and safety officials to notify the families, he said.
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. If the four missing bring the total to 29, it would be the most to die in a U.S. coal mine since a 1970 explosion killed 38 at Finley Coal Co. in Hyden, Ky.
Though the situation looked bleak, the governor 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.
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."
Blankenship said the mine likely would be closed for months.