W.Va. Mine Explosion Traps 13

Gov. Joe Manchin III visits family members and friends of the miners at Sago Baptist Church in Tallmansville, W.Va.
Gov. Joe Manchin III visits family members and friends of the miners at Sago Baptist Church in Tallmansville, W.Va. (By Gene J. Puskar -- Associated Press)

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By Ann Scott Tyson and Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 3, 2006

TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va., Jan. 2 -- An early-morning explosion at a coal mine Monday apparently trapped 13 miners nearly two miles into a horizontal tunnel that is about 260 feet underground, state authorities said.

A second group of miners escaped the mine after hearing and feeling the explosion. Several of them tried to return to save their co-workers and reached the 9,000-foot mark before air-quality monitors indicated there was too much deadly carbon monoxide for them to safely go farther.

Fourteen teams of at least five rescuers each from three states and the federal government converged on the mine, about 100 miles northeast of Charleston. Those at the scene were kept out of the shaft much of the day as dangerous gases vented from the mine, a sign of fire or potential fire underground.

But at 5:51 p.m., more than 11 hours after the explosion, the first rescuers entered on foot; by 10:30 p.m., they had penetrated to 4,800 feet into the 5 1/2 -foot-tall tunnel in an effort to reach the trapped miners. They reported no problems with air quality, mine officials said.

Other rescuers prepared to drill straight down over four to six hours to monitor air in the area where the miners were believed to be. The effort was delayed by problems finding the precise spot to start drilling. A sensitive microphone was also to be lowered down the 260-foot hole to listen for signs of life. Authorities said the hole could be enlarged to remove the miners if that would be a faster way of reaching them than by entering the long tunnel.

Authorities said there was no word about whether the trapped miners survived the explosion and the contaminated air. State officials held out hope that the men, who carried emergency breathing gear, found safety in a catacomb and were waiting to be rescued.

"It's a very slow, very careful process," said Gene Kitts, senior vice president for mining for International Coal Group Inc., which took control of the mine last year after a merger. He said rescuers could progress only about 1,000 feet an hour because they must follow stringent safety procedures to test for underground dangers, such as seeping water, as they walk toward the end of the mine. The crews communicated with the surface every 500 feet, disconnecting their telephones en route through the 18-foot-wide tunnel to avoid sparking a fire or an explosion.

Worried families of the miners gathered at Sago Baptist Church near the mine. They tried to fortify themselves with memories of the dramatic rescue of nine men from a flooded coal mine in Somerset, Pa., in 2002. But as evening descended, many in Upshur County grew more anxious.

"We're hoping they got ahead of the explosion and they are in an area where there is oxygen," said Tim Flint, whose stepson, Randy McCloy, 26, was trapped in the mine. Flint said McCloy thought about the danger all the time. "He told his wife every morning before he left that he loved her, because he knew you never know what might happen."

Flint said McCloy worked in the mine because he wanted to earn enough money so his wife, Anna, could stay home with their children -- Randy, 4, and Isabel, 1. "He didn't want them both working at Wal-Mart and putting the kids in day care," Flint said.

Methane gas, which builds up naturally in coal mines, has caused other mine explosions. Experts said that methane buildup can be worse in winter months because of changes in barometric pressure. Roger Nicholson, general counsel for International Coal Group, told the Associated Press that it was not clear what caused the blast and that there was no indication it was methane-related.

Miner Terry Helms, 50, was the Sago mine's "fire boss" who walked through the drift mine each morning to test the air about an hour before the production crews arrived. He wore a methane monitor designed to sound automatically if there was too much of the gas for safety. "It was inspected, it was clean," Kitts said of Helms's role Monday morning in checking a mine that had been closed for two days over the New Year's holiday.


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