Melville, W.Va. — Rescuers on Saturday found the bodies of two miners who disappeared after a conveyor belt caught fire deep inside a coal mine, bringing to 14 the number of West Virginia miners killed on the job in less than a month.
The bodies were found in an area of the mine where rescue teams had been battling the intense blaze for more than 40 hours.
Rescuers could not enter that portion of the mine until the flames had been mostly extinguished and the tunnels cooled down.
"We have found the two miners we were looking for," said Doug Conaway, director of the state Office of Miners' Health Training and Safety. "Unfortunately, we don't have a positive outcome."
The miners became separated Thursday evening as their 12-member crew tried to escape a conveyor belt fire at Aracoma Coal's Alma No. 1 mine in Melville, about 60 miles southwest of Charleston. The rest of the crew and nine other miners working in a different section of the mine escaped unharmed.
"We have two brave miners that have perished," Gov. Joe Manchin told reporters.
Conaway said it appeared the two miners made a "valiant effort" to escape, but were blocked by high temperatures and thick smoke.
Saturday's deaths bring to 14 the number of West Virginia miners killed on the job since Jan. 2.
The governor pledged to introduce legislation Monday dealing with rapid responses in emergencies, electronic tracking technology and reserve oxygen stations for underground miners.
"These two men who perished in this mine, the 12 men who perished in the Sago Mine, I can only say to each of those families ... that they have not died in vain," Manchin said.
He planned to travel to Washington on Tuesday to discuss the proposals with the state's congressional delegation, hoping they will seek reforms on the federal level.
The governor and Sen. Jay Rockefeller informed families of the deaths at a church before announcing them publicly, along with Don Blankenship, chairman of Aracoma's owner, Massey Energy.
Massey opened the mine in 1999, and these are its first fatalities. The company released a statement Saturday, saying it was saddened by the miners' deaths and that the company will now focus on comforting the families.
The federal Mine Health and Safety Act was written a year after a 1968 explosion in Farmington that killed 78 miners, including Manchin's uncle.
Rescue workers on the surface of the Aracoma mine got no response Saturday morning when they drilled a 200-foot hole into a mine shaft in an effort to contact the missing miners. A camera and a microphone lowered into the hole detected no sign of them.
Rescue efforts were hampered by intense heat and smoke that cut visibility to 2 to 3 feet in some parts of the mine. Teams were able to get into four tunnels, each about four miles long, but they could not get beyond the burning conveyor belt. Heat from the fire had also caused the roof of the mine to deteriorate.
The victims were identified as Don I. Bragg, 33, and Ellery Hatfield, 47.
Both were husbands and fathers with more than a decade of mining experience and had worked in the Alma mine for five years.