Relatives begin burying coal mine victims, new effort to find four others

Grieving relatives began burying victims of the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster Friday. More than 300 people packed a church for the funeral of Benny Willingham, a 61-year-old miner who was five weeks from retiring when he died. (April 9)
By David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post staff writer
Saturday, April 10, 2010

MONTCOAL, W.VA.-- Funerals began Friday for some of the 25 miners killed in the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster, while rescuers ventured back into the fume-choked shaft in search of the four workers missing since an explosion Monday.

Rescuers were trying to reach an area deep inside the mine where, it was hoped, survivors could be inside an inflatable refuge chamber. It was the fourth attempt to find the men.

"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 had wanted to check two such chambers; they found earlier that one was unused.

President Obama, who returned Friday from three days in Prague, said he has asked mining regulators for a preliminary report by next week on "what went wrong and why it went wrong so badly."

Obama said that he was "in awe of the courage and selflessness" shown by rescuers who responded to the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. "We are praying for a miracle," Obama said.

But the prospects of finding the miners alive continued to dim Friday. In their third attempt, rescuers were unable to reach the inflatable chamber before smoke from an underground fire forced their retreat.

Officials also tried to check the refuge chamber using a camera dropped through a hole drilled from the surface, but for the second time in a week the hole was drilled in the wrong place. It wound up inside a support pillar of the mine, providing no view of the refuge chamber.

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