After four missing miners' bodies found, grim recovery begins
MONTCOAL, W.VA. -- Crews on Saturday began the bleak task of carrying bodies out of a coal mine shattered by an explosion that left 29 men dead, only hours after families' hopes were crushed when rescuers found the bodies of the last four missing miners.
It had been an excruciating week for loved ones waiting for word that the missing miners might somehow have survived. Seven bodies had already been removed soon after the blast Monday at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine, the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since a 1970 explosion killed 38 in Hyden, Ky.
The discovery of the last four bodies ended days of futile searches by rescue crews, who repeatedly battled a volatile mix of poisonous gases and thick smoke that turned them back on three previous attempts. The massive blast also left the inside of the mine a mess of twisted tracks, boulders and debris.
"We did not receive the miracle that we prayed for," West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said after meeting with relatives to deliver the news. "So this journey has ended and now the healing will start."
In a statement, President Obama called for a thorough investigation and said that, in the memory of those killed, the country should "demand accountability."
"All Americans deserve to work in a place that is safe, and we must take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that all our miners are as safe as possible so that a disaster like this doesn't happen again," Obama said.
Obama is awaiting a report on what happened at the mine, which has recorded a long list of safety violations, and Congress is planning hearings. Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration spokeswoman Amy Louviere said officials would arrive Monday to begin investigating the disaster.
On Saturday, the mood among many people in this swath of coal country was somber. While watching the official announcement on television, Patty Ann Manios, a city councilwoman from nearby Whitesville, took off her glasses and started to weep. "Oh God. Oh God," she said. "They didn't know what hit them."
Soon after the blast Monday, 25 men were known to have perished and two survived. That left four unaccounted for, resulting in an agonizing weeklong wait for relatives and officials who held onto faint hopes that the miners had managed to make their way to refuge chambers stocked with food, water and oxygen. But none of the mine's refuge chambers had been deployed.
Twenty-eight of the dead were Massey employees, and one was a contract worker, a company spokesman said. A complete list of victims was not released, though several were known through obituaries and information families released.
Conditions were so rough after the blast that rescuers only late Friday realized that they had walked past the bodies of the four missing miners on the first day without seeing them, a federal mine safety official said.
"There was so much smoke and the conditions were so dire with dust in the air that they apparently bypassed the bodies that were on the ground," said Kevin Stricklin, the MSHA's coal administrator.
Once the bodies are recovered, MSHA and West Virginia regulators plan a joint investigation that could take as long as a year, Stricklin said.
"No stone will be left unturned and we'll find out the cause of this explosion," Stricklin said. "Quite frankly, the only good thing that can come out of this is to educate everyone, put regulations in place to make sure that this never happens again."
Officials have not said what caused the blast, but they believe high levels of methane gas may have played a role.
Massey chief executive Don Blankenship, who was with the families when they learned the miners were dead, has strongly defended the company's record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety.