Montcoal, W.Va. — Rescuers held out slim hope Tuesday that four missing coal miners might have survived when a mine repeatedly cited for improperly venting methane gas exploded, killing 25 people in the country’s deadliest underground disaster in a quarter-century.
A day after the blast in southern West Virginia, desperate rescuers began boring into the mine in hopes of releasing poisonous gases so crews could go in search of the men. But Gov. Joe Manchin said it could be midday today before much progress is made.
“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.
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 it was empty. The buildup of gases prevented them from reaching the second chamber. Officials said they were 90 percent sure of the miners’ location.
On Tuesday, bulldozers carved an access road to make way for drilling crews, who planned to dig four shafts to vent methane, a highly combustible gas that accumulates naturally in coal mines, and carbon monoxide from the blast site about 1,000 feet beneath the surface.
Crews began drilling two side-by-side holes that start at 12 inches in diameter and narrow to 6 inches. They hoped to open more holes later Tuesday night.
Massey Energy Co., which owns the Upper Big Branch mine, 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 many violations.
In an area where coal is king, people anxiously awaited word on the missing miners. One resident hung a “Praying 4 Our Miners” banner outside a home. At Libby’s City Grill in nearby Whitesville, the accident was the talk at every breakfast table. Owner James Scott was grieving his own loss — his 58-year-old uncle, Deward Scott of Montcoal, was among the dead.
Neither his uncle nor his customers talked much about their work.
“I never heard anyone say anything about the mine, good or bad,” James Scott said. “You just don’t talk about it.”
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. “He loved that place.” Two other family members survived the blast, he said.
On Tuesday night, about 50 mourners packed the creaky pews of St. Joseph Catholic Church, a modest building on a lonely rural road a few miles from the mine. As a flute played, and congregants prayed for the four missing miners, they also did their best to belt out hymns. Some wore their Sunday best while others wandered in wearing T-shirts, jeans and tattered baseball caps.