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Rescuers begin drilling in renewed effort to find trapped West Virginia miners

Video by Guillaume MEYER


Latest update : 2010-04-07

Rescue crews have begun drilling into the side of a coal mine in West Virginia that exploded on Monday, in order to release trapped toxic fumes and allow rescuers to enter and search for the four missing miners. The explosion killed at least 25.

AFP - Rescue crews prepared for a drilling operation as hopes faded Tuesday of finding survivors from the deadliest US mining disaster in over two decades.

Four miners were still missing and feared dead in Montcoal, West Virginia after Monday's deadly explosion set off a fireball that tore through the Upper Big Branch mine operated by a Massey Energy Company unit. Rescuers have already identified 25 bodies.

A buildup of lethal gases forced rescuers to the sidelines, as crews drilled holes into the side of the coal mine to release the toxic air.

"The drills are in place now," West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin told a news conference near the scene of the disaster.

"Nothing can be proceeding with the rescue operation until we know it's safe for miners to enter, and they're not going to recommend putting them in harm's way until we get the first hole to see what type of levels that we have of methane."

Massey chief executive Don Blankenship told West Virginia MetroNews radio he did not know when the rescue operation would resume as it was not yet certain that the first drill holes at the mine would achieve the desired result.

"There are a couple of possibilities to clear up the explosive atmosphere, but I think I would be negligent to say when that all is going to happen," Blankenship said.

"I don't have a lot of hope that they're alive," he added. "We always have hope but given... the appearance of the explosion that was described by some of the rescue team members that I talked to, I don't give it much hope."

Manchin said survivors had described their shirts being blown off by the force of the blast, which turned rail lines and heavy equipment into bent and twisted wreckage that Manchin said looked like pretzels.

As relatives of the four missing workers faced an agonizing wait for news, President Barack Obama sent his "deepest condolences" and "prayers" to the families and the close-knit mining community.

Authorities were clinging to slim hopes the workers could have reached a rescue chamber with clean air, food and water to last four days. The bodies of 19 workers were still in the mine and two injured remained in hospital.

"Most people are saying that they just don't believe it. We lost so many good guys," pastor Tobie Hilderbrand told AFP. "The mine is a way of life for most of the people in this area... everyone is affected."

As investigators probed the cause of the giant fireball, West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller said he would visit the mine to oversee the rescue effort and investigate what happened.

"We will leave no stone unturned in determining how this happened and in taking action for the future," he said in a statement.

The accident, the worst US mining mishap since 1984, hit Monday afternoon during a shift change at the mine, located some 30 miles (50 kilometers) south of the state capital Charleston.

The facility is run by Performance Coal Company, a subsidiary of Massey Energy, the fourth biggest US coal producer that operates some 50 mines across the country.

Established during the 1920s by a powerful Virginia industrial family of the same name, Massey produces around 36 million tonnes of coal each year. It is valued at some 2.3 billion dollars and had 2009 earnings of 104 million dollars.

Blankenship said his company's "top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families."

The mine owner and operator have been cited repeatedly for potentially dangerous conditions, including high levels of combustible methane gas and Massey paid out 4.2 million dollars in criminal and civil fines last year.

Coal mining is a key industry in West Virginia, with 150 million tonnes produced each year, second only in coal production to the state of Wyoming.

In the last major mine explosion, in January 2006, 12 people died in a coal mine owned by the International Coal Group in Sago, West Virginia, after they were trapped by an explosion 260 feet (80 meters) underground. One miner survived.

The worst US mining disaster ever was in 1907 in Monongah, West Virginia, where an explosion killed 362 workers.

The United Mine Workers of America said it had dispatched trained staff to the Montcoal mine to help, even though the site was non-unionized.

"We are all brothers and sisters in the coalfields at times like this," said union president Cecil Roberts.

Date created : 2010-04-07