Five miners killed in a methane gas explosion were removed last night from deep within a Westmoreland Coal Co. mine, bringing to end a vigil that began 38 hours earlier.

Several relatives gathered around the entrance to Westmoreland's Ferrell No. 17 mine as the victims, wrapped in black rubber bags, were brought out.

The bodies had been found by rescue teams early yesterday.

The news was delivered to the miners' wives and close relatives, who held a vigil near the mine opening, shortly after 2 a.m.

Company officials said the men were found in an isolated section of the mine, about two miles from the entrance. Westmoreland officials said the men were all killed instantly.

Thirteen rescue teams had staged a continuous operation, wading through mud and sometimes waist deep water to reach the victims.

Westmoreland spokesman Steve Anderson said by the miners were killed early Friday by "a very isolated methane explosion." Methane occurs naturally in coal seams.

The disaster intensified the debate over mine safety in West Virginia, where 29 miners have died in accidents since Jan. 1.

During the vigil, United Mine Workers President Sam Church denounced Westmoreland for its safety record and for the delay between the explosion and the start of rescue operations.

Martin McDonnell, Westmoreland vice president for finance and administration, disputed Church's statements, saying the company's mines "are as safe as any in Appalachia."