The death toll rose to 25 and four coal miners were still missing deep underground today after an explosion ripped through a West Virginia mine owned by Massey Energy.
The accident on Monday at the Upper Big Branch Mine in Montcoal, also known as Whitesville, was one of the deadliest at a US coal mine in recent years. The mine, owned by Massey's Performance Coal subsidiary, is about 30 miles (48 km) south of the state capital, Charleston.
Mine officials said the death toll rose to 25 after rescuers discovered more bodies underground hours after the blast.
Kevin Strickland of the US Mine Safety and Health Administration said four men were still missing.
"This is still a rescue operation," said Strickland, adding, however, that there was little hope the miners would be found alive.
The mine has two emergency chambers stocked with food, water and enough air to survive for four days, and rescuers were still hoping the missing miners had made their way there.
Strickland said rescue teams were forced to pull back from the search area because of a continuing threat of methane gas underground. The rescuers intended to drill a borehole from the surface above the mine to try to reach the missing men.
Rescuers included officials from state and federal mine safety agencies and first responders from all levels of government, said Leslie Fitzwater, a spokeswoman for the West Virginia Department of Commerce.
Earlier, Massey CEO Don Blankenship said the company was "taking every action possible to locate and rescue those still missing."
West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin said on his website:"For those families who are still waiting for news on their missing loved ones, I want them to know that we are doing everything possible in cooperation with federal officials and the company to get our miners out as quickly and safely as possible."
Massey, headquartered in Richmond, Virginia, is the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia with operations in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.
Massey said on its website its accident rate fell to an all-time low for the company in 2009. It said its safety record last year was stronger than the industry average for the sixth consecutive year.
But, according to federal records, the Upper Big Branch Mine has had three fatalities since 1998 and has a worse than average injury rate over the last 10 years. Two of the miners died in roof collapses in 1998 and 2001, while a third was electrocuted in 2003 when repairing an underground car.
Ellen Smith, the editor of Mine Safety and Health News, said the Upper Big Branch mine had been repeatedly cited for safety violations going back years.
The mine, which employs just over 200 people, uses the "longwall mining" method in to tear coal from a lengthy face, leading the ground behind it to collapse. Critics say the method can cause surface subsidence and damage to buildings.
In the worst coal mine disaster in US history, 362 miners died in an explosion in 1906 in West Virginia's Monongah mine.
In January 2006, 12 miners died after an explosion in the Sago Mine, run by International Mines Corp in Tallsmansville, West Virginia, according to the U.S. Mine Rescue Association.Reuse content