MELVILLE, W.Va. – Intense heat from an underground fire slowed rescue crews and threatened to collapse part of a mine as the search for two missing miners passed 41 1/2 hours Saturday — the time it had taken to find the bodies of 12 miners trapped in the Sago Mine less than three weeks earlier.
Nineteen miners had escaped after a conveyor belt caught fire inside the Alma No. 1 mine Thursday evening, but two others never made it out.
Saturday afternoon, there had still been no contact with the missing men. Crews drilled into the mine and pounded on a steel drill bit, hoping to hear some response, but none came, said Jesse Cole, with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. A camera and a microphone lowered into the hole detected no sign of them, he said.
"We are still very much in rescue mode," Gov. Joe Manchin stressed Saturday.
He said 40 rescue workers were inside the mine, and officials hoped to get the fire under control so they could reach previously inaccessible areas of the sprawling complex. The intensity of the heat and smoke had blocked the teams from getting beyond the burning conveyor belt, said Doug Conaway, director of the state's Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training.
"Part of the problem ... with the fire is we are having roof falls," Conaway said. "The heat from the fire is deteriorating the roof."
For the first time since the fire broke out, the governor on Saturday publicly identified the two missing men: Don Israel Bragg, 33, and Ellery "Elvis" Hatfield, 47. Both are fathers, have more than a decade of mining experience and have worked in the Alma mine for five years.
"These are hard working, God loving, family loving people," Manchin said.
As the rescue efforts continued deep underground, relatives and friends of the two men gathered in a church for regular updates from officials.
"It has been one big and close family that has been in the church for close to two days now," said Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.
Rahall said officials had been forthright with the families and were briefing them regularly — a concern after the families of the Sago miners first heard they had been found alive and didn't find out until about three hours later that only one of the trapped miners had survived.
"They have asked questions and they are truly truly praying at this point as we all are that their loved ones be returned to them as soon as possible," Rahall said.
Officials with Richmond, Va.-based Massey Energy, the mine's owner, said government regulators had asked them not to comment "to avoid inconsistent communications."
During the Sago mine disaster, the only briefings came from mine owner International Coal Group Inc. of Ashland, Ky.
The two men missing in the Alma mine were equipped with oxygen canisters that typically produce about an hour's worth of air, but officials said there were also pockets of good air inside the mine that they could have reached.
"I've got faith in the Lord and I've got faith in them. I believe if anybody can come out of it, they will," said John Goff, 45, of Logan, whose nephew was among the 19 miners who escaped.
Rescue efforts inside the mine were hampered by heavy smoke that cut visibility to 2 to 3 feet. Teams were able to get into four tunnels, each about four miles long, but they couldn't get beyond the burning conveyer belt.
Officials emphasized that there were key differences between the Alma mine fire and the Jan 2. Sago mine explosion. For one, the carbon monoxide levels, while still higher than normal in the Alma mine, were not as severe, Conaway said.
Also, the ventilation system continued to work at the Alma mine and no methane was detected coming out, said Robert Friend, acting deputy assistant secretary for MSHA.
That enabled rescuers to get into the mine more quickly. The gases at the Sago Mine and damage to the ventilation system had prevented investigators from entering the mine until Saturday. It will likely be another week before they can reach the deepest parts of the mine and begin the physical investigation into what caused the explosion, said International Coal Group President Ben Hatfield.
The lone survivor from Sago, 26-year-old Randal McCloy Jr., remained hospitalized in a light coma Saturday.
Manchin said he would eventually seek mine reforms but would not provide details. "As soon as this rescue operation is completed ... I will have a statement that will change mining, not only in this state but across the country," he said.
Conveyor belt fires can occur when belt rollers get stuck or out of alignment and rub against the structure supporting them, said John Langton, MSHA's deputy administrator for coal mine safety and health. Another possible cause is the accumulation of coal dust.
Jimmy Marcum, a 54-year-old retired miner from Delbarton, said better equipment is needed to protect miners.
"I mean, they can send a man to the moon but they can't make a (oxygen canister) that will last at least 16 hours. ... That's what they need to do," Marcum said.