West Virginia coal mine explosion leaves 7 dead, 19 missing

By Associated Press
Tuesday, April 6, 2010; A03

MONTCOAL, W.VA. -- Dozens of rescuers were trying to find 19 missing miners Monday night after an explosion at an underground coal mine with a history of releasing vast amounts of highly combustible methane gas, the mine owner and mine safety officials said. Seven miners were killed in the explosion.

State mining director Ron Wooten said the blast was reported around 3 p.m. at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, about 30 miles south of Charleston.

Massey chief executive Don Blankenship confirmed the number of dead and missing in a statement, saying that the company was "taking every action possible to locate and rescue those still missing."

Mine safety officials said the seven miners killed were leaving the mine site in a vehicle at the time of the explosion. Two other men on the vehicle were hurt, said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator with the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

One injured miner was in intensive care at Charleston Area Medical Center, spokeswoman Elizabeth Pellegrin said.

"We are preparing for other patients," she said.

The missing include two crews of nine workers and a fire boss who had been working alone, Stricklin said. Officials don't yet know what caused the explosion.

The mine includes two rescue chambers near the blast site that, if the trapped miners can reach them, are stocked with food, water and enough air to survive for four days, Stricklin said.

Nine rescue crews, usually made up of six members each, had assembled Monday night at the mine, MSHA spokeswoman Amy Louviere said. The mine is on the Eagle coal seam, which releases up to 2 million cubic feet of methane gas into the mine every 24 hours, federal records report.

Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining. The colorless, odorless gas is often sold to American consumers to heat homes and cook meals. In mines, giant fans are used to keep methane concentrations below certain levels. In 2006, 12 miners died in a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia. If concentrations are kept between 5 and 15 percent, the gas can explode with a spark roughly similar to the static charge created by walking across a carpet in winter.

The sprawling Upper Big Branch, which cannot be seen from the road, has 19 openings and roughly 7-foot ceilings. Inside, it is crisscrossed with railroad tracks used for hauling people and equipment. It is located in one of the state's more heavily mined areas.

The bulk of the coal is removed with a machine called a longwall miner, which uses a cutting head to move back and forth across the working face somewhat like a 1,000-foot-long deli slicer. Hydraulic roof supports shield the miners and equipment as the machines cut deeper into the mountain, with the roof in the mined-out areas caving in by design after workers move on, according to Massey's Web site.

The mine, run by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal, also has caches of oxygen along emergency escape routes and airtight chambers designed to provide enough air to keep people alive for four days, according to Randy Harris, an engineering consultant who oversees installation of high-tech gear.

Massey ranks among the nation's top five coal producers and is among the industry's most profitable. It has a spotty safety record.

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