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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)

"Lightning could have been a trigger event," Kitts said. He added that the crew that reached 9,000 feet reported no debris and no significant destruction to the tunnel."That just adds to the mystery" of why the first crew of miners had not emerged.

Helms's fiance, Virginia Moore, waited with members of his family at the church. She said he usually left their house in Kingwood, W.Va., around 3 a.m. for the 90-minute drive to the mine and his early-morning air tests. "I believe he's in there worried about everybody else but himself. But in the back of my mind I have a numb feeling."

Judy Shackelford of Arthurdale, W.Va., said her brother "knew it was bad" because their father died of black lung disease. Another brother also is a miner. "Miners make good money, but several times he'd say he wished he could find another job. But it's hard around here," she said.

"I'm hoping, but I don't know," she said of her brother's fate. "He might be on the other side of the air" and able to breathe.

The mine has had a spike in health and safety violations, according to records kept at the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration -- 205 citations and orders were issued against it in 2005, compared with 68 in 2004. State investigators said they will review the records to see whether there were warning signs.

Kitts said at a news conference Monday night that the federal mine safety agency had cited the mine for 46 alleged violations during an 11-week review that ended Dec. 22.

"These 46 violations were not considered of that magnitude," he said, adding that "we addressed them" by improving equipment or providing more training. Kitts said there was an 80 percent drop in safety violations between the second and fourth quarters of 2005, and he noted that the mine agency could close a mine for serious safety violations.

The explosion took place between 6 and 6:30 a.m., as two groups of miners in separate carts were entering the mine to resume operations after the holidays, according to Lara Ramsburg, a spokeswoman for West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin III. Miners in the second cart, who were not within sight of the first, heard or felt an explosion ahead of them and swiftly retreated.

Mine supervisors were alerted by phone at 6:40 a.m., Kitts said, and began evaluating carbon monoxide levels at the mine, which would tell them whether there was a fire underground.

"The first car had approximately 13 miners, and they are unaccounted for," Ramsburg said. Describing what had happened, she added: "The second car felt or heard some kind of explosion and backtracked out of the mine; however, the first car never made it out."

The West Virginia mine presents an altogether different situation from the flooded Pennsylvania mine that trapped nine workers three years ago, said Joseph Sbaffoni, director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Mine Safety, who was closely involved in the 2002 rescue. It helped that the best minds in the mining business made the right calls in the Pennsylvania rescue, Sbaffoni said, but "we had a lot of help from the Man Upstairs."

The Sago mine is listed as belonging to Anker West Virginia Mining Co., according to Terry Farley, an administrator at the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training. Anker's parent company is International Coal Group. Information provided to reporters at the mine said it was opened in September 1999 and employs 145 miners. The mine produces 800,000 tons of coal for electrical power plants each year.

Cindy Burke, who lives near the church where family members were waiting, said that one of the trapped men was a neighbor and had recently complained about safety conditions at the mine. Last week, she said, the miner, whom she identified as Junior Hammer, walked into a general store and asked for a cigar. "They said, 'You don't smoke,' and he said he didn't know how much longer he was going to be alive because of the idiots at the mine."

Vedantam reported from Washington. Researcher Don Pohlman in Washington contributed to this report.

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