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.
"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.