Rescue teams reenter W.Va. mine as Obama mourns those killed

Officials say rescue teams hoping to find four missing workers after an explosion in a West Virginia mine had to abandon their mission when they discovered signs of fire and smoke. An explosion in the mine killed 25 people earlier this week.
By David A. Fahrenthold and Scott Butterworth
Washington Post staff writer
Friday, April 9, 2010; 3:28 PM

CHARLESTON, W.VA. -- Funerals began Friday for some of the 25 miners killed in a West Virginia coal mine, while rescue teams were making their fourth attempt to reach four workers still missing.

Two teams of eight rescuers entered the mine about 2:30 p.m., authorities said. Officials said it may take three or four hours to reach an area deep inside the mine where the missing men may be inside an inflatable refuge chamber.

"There's no way with the atmosphere that we're seeing that anybody could have survived outside of that chamber," said Kevin Stricklin, of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration. Authorities wanted to check two such chambers; they found earlier that one was unused.

In his first public statement about the disaster, President Obama said that he has asked mining regulators for a preliminary report by next week on "what went wrong and why it went wrong so badly."

Obama, who returned Friday to the White House from three days abroad in Prague, offered "my deepest condolences" to families and friends of those killed in the mine explosion, and he said that he was "in awe of the courage and selflessness" shown by rescuers who responded to the Upper Big Branch mine. "This nation owes them a debt of gratitude," he added.

Americans "are praying for a miracle," Obama said -- the safe return of the four missing workers -- but the prospect for that miracle dimmed dramatically Friday when rescuers had to turn back for a third time, officials said, after finding tunnels filled with smoke from an underground fire.

Earlier Friday, officials said they wanted to check the last refuge chamber using a camera dropped through a hole drilled from the surface, but for the second time in the last week the hole was drilled in the wrong place. It wound up inside a support pillar of the mine, unable to see where the miners may be.

About 300 mourners packed a church in Mullens, W.Va., for the funeral for Benny Willingham. He had been a miner for more than 30 years, and mourners remembered him for his generosity and how he lived his life for God, the Associated Press reported.

Officials at the Upper Big Branch mine said the only real hope for a rescue is that the miners reached a second inflatable chamber, located farther back into the mine. Rescue crews were unable to reach that chamber Friday morning before they were forced to retreat. Officials hope to check the chamber by lowering a camera through a hole they were drilling from the surface.

"What we didn't expect was for there to be smoke from a fire" inside the mine, Stricklin said. Because of the discovery that a fire was still burning somewhere near where the four missing miners are believed to be, "it does not look like we will physically be able to get there."

The rescue effort has already been thwarted by explosive conditions inside the mine, and by gases that are trapped 1,100 feet below the surface. Rescue teams were sent in Monday night and Thursday morning, and in both cases were withdrawn for their safety after the discovery of near-explosive levels of methane and other gases.

There were 31 men inside the mine when the explosion occurred about 3 p.m. Monday. Two were rescued. Seven bodies were found and removed. Rescuers have also seen 18 bodies, only four of which have been identified. Four others remain unaccounted for.

Officials have called the explosion the worst coal mine disaster in the United States in more than two decades. The tragedy has focused attention on the Upper Big Branch mine, which has a long record of safety violations that critics say should have triggered more action from federal regulators.

Federal and state officials said they had promised miners' families answers within 96 hours of the explosion, and were determined to do whatever was within their power to keep that promise.

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