TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. – Rescue workers came closer to the space in which they believe 13 West Virginian coal miners are trapped Tuesday, but the CEO of the company that owns the mine still said "we are clearly in a situation where we need a miracle."
Ben Hatfield, CEO of the International Coal Group Inc., said the drilling of two holes near where they believe the miners are located was completed, but the drills stopped short of the destination to allow rescue workers in the shaft to evacuate for any further action.
Drillers are roughly 600 feet away from where the miners are believed to be trapped, which Hatfield says would take three to five hours to push through.
Earlier in the day, tests concluded that carbon monoxide levels in parts of the mine were far above the normal limit. Hatfield said there were no updates on the levels later in the afternoon.
The search for the miners — who have been trapped underground for more than 35 hours — in Sago Mine has been discouraging thus far, mine officials said, but the search will continue until there is absolutely no hope left.
"There is hope they could be at another location or they could be barricaded somewhere" else in the mine where the carbon monoxide levels aren't as harmful, Hatfield told reporters.
Hatfield did say, however, that "with each hour that passes, the likelihood of a success outcome diminishes."
"I know it's challenging, the news we received; the carbon monoxide levels are not as good as we'd like. But as we say in West Virginia, we believe in miracles … we still have hope," West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin told FOX News.
Manchin, who met with about 200 relatives and co-workers gathered near the mining complex, said the miners' families are "tough people."
"They work hard, they have faith in God … I want to assure them we're doing everything possible," he added. "We're working as a unit, we're making unanimous decisions … we're doing everything as quickly as we can."
Nick Helms, whose 50-year-old father, Terry, is among the trapped miners, called the news "devastating."
The blast occurred at about 6:40 a.m. Monday, trapping the miners 260 feet below the surface of the Sago Mine, located about 100 miles northeast of Charleston.
Four co-workers tried to reach them immediately after the explosion but stopped because of contaminated air. The blast knocked out the mine's communication equipment, preventing authorities from contacting the miners. The cause of the blast hadn't been determined but some officials said it may have been sparked by lightning.
Rick McGee, who works at the mine with his brother-in-law, Randal McCloy, who is among those trapped, said cinderblock walls meant to direct the flow of air inside the mine were knocked down by the blast.
Given the new information, McGee said, "There's a chance, not a great chance, but there is still a chance" that the miners could still be alive if they were able to barricade themselves.
Rescuers had penetrated more than 11,400 feet into the coal mine Tuesday but were ordered to return to the surface in case the drilling caused dangerous contaminated air to shift.
"We will push forward as quickly as we can as long as there is a shred of hope that we can get our people out safely," Hatfield said.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan said President Bush was briefed Tuesday morning on the trapped miners and said the federal government is "actively involved" in the search. The Mine Safety and Health Administration is the lead federal agency and is on the scene.
"The miners and their families are in our thoughts and prayers," McClellan said.
Probing the Mine
A track mounted robot equipped with a camera and sensors to measure air quality was brought from the Mine Safety and Health Administration office and sent into the mine. But Hatfield said the robot was getting bogged down by mud and rescue workers were forging ahead on their own.
"These developments have not prevented the progress of the rescue teams," he said at 11:30 a.m. ET.
Search workers penetrated a hole in the left section of the mine near where they believed the miners were trapped around 5:38 a.m. ET. They pounded on steel but heard no response, Hatfield said. That drill was relocated to a third site and began to drill about 210 feet into the ground at 2 p.m. ET.
"No barricades or survivors were seen," in the first drilling location, Hatfield said, adding that the camera attached to the probe didn't show any major damage done to the equipment inside, which could mean there was no major blast inside the mine at that location. The camera also didn't find any bodies.
A hole being drilled in a second section of the mine at 6:50 a.m. had gone about 160 feet into the ground until heavy groundwater flow slowed the progress, Hatfield said. Once the third hole is made, rescue workers will have a total of three cameras to help them survey the scene underground.
While so far discouraged, "we all continue to push forward as long as we can so long as there is hope," Hatfield said.
Part of that discouragement comes from the fact that air monitors attached to the probes have recorded oxygen and methane levels at acceptable levels but the carbon monoxide levels were recorded at 1,300 parts per million — that far exceeds the 400 parts per million maximum level that sustains life.
Elevated carbon monoxide levels often indicate that there has been combustion.
"This carbon monoxide level far exceeds regulatory limit of expirable air … therefore we are very discouraged by the results of this test," Hatfield said. "While we're very disappointed by the information we've received thus far, we remain determined to continue the search so long as there's hope and hope remains."
The miners are trained to barricade themselves in an area with clean air and wait for rescuers if they ever think there is danger.
'We Believe in Miracles'
Several hundred family members and friends, many wrapped in blankets provided by the Red Cross, waited earlier for word on the miners. Among those waiting was Daniel Merideth, the son-in-law of trapped 50-year-old miner Alby Martin Bennett, who had planned to retire this year after more than 30 years on the job.
"If he's alive down there, he's ministering to all the guys. We have hope and the only thing we can hang onto right now is the hope we have," Merideth told FOX News.
"It's hard just to stand by not hearing anything. I have the faith that my daddy's still alive and if he's not, I know where he's at," added Bennett's daughter, Ann.
Merideth said there have been numerous rock falls and problems with rising water in the mine since his father-in-law has worked at Sago. The mine has been closed a couple of times while workers made it safer to enter, he said.
"We always have concerns about him coming to work but he loved his work so much, he was going to do it until he retired," Merideth said.
Lila Muncy, the younger sister of trapped miner Randal McCloy, said prayer is important in the close-knit community.
Before her brother went into the mine each day he told his wife, "God is with you," Muncy said.
"We were always raised to have faith," she said. "I'm not going anywhere until I see my brother's face."
Teams had initially planned to begin drilling Monday night, but couldn't start until early Tuesday because they had to do some grading work in the spot determined to be the best location.
The crews took their time in setting up the drill because it was "critical that the start of this be done very accurately," said Gene Kitts, a senior vice president for ICG.
The miners carry individual air purifying systems that would give them up to seven hours of clean air, said Tim McGee, who works at the mine and was among those at the Sago Baptist Church. The miners do not carry oxygen tanks, McGee said.
Kitts said the miners each had between 3 and 30 years experience and are trained to try to tap on roots, waterlines, anything possible, to alert rescuers of their location.
"This is not a rookie crew underground," Kitts said. "So we're just trusting that their training and their mining instincts have kicked in immediately ... We will expect to be there quick enough so that food, water, those sorts of issues probably will not come into play."
Coal mine explosions are typically caused by buildups of naturally occurring methane gas, and the danger increases in the winter months, when the barometric pressure can release the odorless, colorless and highly flammable gas.
The last major mine rescue in the United States was in Somerset, Pa., in July, 2002, when nine miners were trapped in the flooded Quecreek mine for 77 hours. They all survived and the rescue effort drew national and international attention.
"You've got plenty of time to do a lot of thinking, believe me," Quecreek survivor Dennis Hall told FOX News about what it's like to be trapped in a mine. "Probably for the most part, you're thinking about your family. You want to get back to them as soon as you can."
'The Mine Was Safe'
The mine had been idle on Saturday and Sunday and two groups of miners were to resume production on Monday. A fire boss went into the mine before the first group entered the mine at 5:51 a.m. and declared it was safe.
"That just adds to the mystery of what happened when the production crew went underground," Kitts had said Monday.
The second group of miners entered at 6:30 a.m., just before power went out in the mine. The second group withdrew.
ICG of Ashland, Ky., acquired the Sago Mine (pronounced SAY-goh) last March when it bought Anker West Virginia Mining Co., which had been in bankruptcy. The Sago Mine had annual production of about 800,000 tons of coal, the company said.
Federal inspectors cited the mine for 46 alleged violations of federal mine health and safety rules during an 11-week review that ended Dec. 22, according to records.
The more serious alleged violations, resulting in proposed penalties of at least $250 each, involved steps for safeguarding against roof falls, and the mine's plan to control methane and breathable dust. The mine received 208 citations from MSHA during 2005, up from 68 citations in 2004.
The state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training issued 144 notices of violation against the mine in 2005, up from 74 the year before.
Kitts said safety at the mine has improved dramatically since ICG took over and the company is working closely with regulatory agencies to make further improvements.
"We think that we are operating a safe mine," he said. "We have no real clue about what triggered this explosion or what happened today."
Hatfield on Tuesday stressed that ICG hires only expert miners and supervisors who make safety their No. 1 priority and added that questions of blame will be dealt with later.
"Our focus is not on defending records, our focus is on getting people out of there and that's all we want to focus on at this point," Hatfield said. "We believe the mine was safe."
FOXNews.com's Liza Porteus and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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