Underground explosion kills 25 in US coal mine

Four still missing after blast 300m below ground in West Virginia

The death toll from a coal mining explosion in West Virginia stood at 25 last night and could rise further. Officials warned that hopes of finding four more missing men alive were rapidly fading.

President Barack Obama opened a previously scheduled White House prayer breakfast by sending condolences to the families of the victims of the accident, which happened late on Monday afternoon at the sprawling Upper Big Branch mine about 30 miles south of the city of Charleston.

The blast, possibly caused by the ignition of methane, which is highly combustible, occurred 330m (1,000ft) underground during a shift change. Already last night, it was being recorded as the deadliest mining disaster in the US since a Utah shaft explosion in 1987 killed 27 men.

Even as desperate rescue efforts for the missing men were under way, questions about the safety record at the mine, owned by Massey Energy Co, were starting to multiply. In the past year alone, the company had been charged with 10 violations of mining regulations, all to do with ventilation intended to prevent the build-up of deadly gases.

Suspense mounted yesterday as rescue teams began drilling three new shafts down to depths of 1,000ft to release methane as well as carbon monoxide. That was not expected to be completed until nightfall last night. Only then would it be safe for rescue workers to re-enter the mine to search for the four men who were still missing.

The hope was that the men may have been able to reach one of several airtight survival chambers deep underground that are stocked with water and food. But West Virginia's Governor, Joe Manchin, made clear that the chances of finding the men alive did not look good. "It's going to be a long day and we're not going to have a lot of information until we can get the first hole through," he said at a news conference at the site.

"All we have left is hope, and we're going to continue to do what we can," Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said. "But I'm just trying to be honest with everybody and say that the situation does look dire."

Among those killed on Monday was 62-year-old Benny Willingham, who, after more than three decades mining, was weeks away from retirement. He had been planning to take his wife on a Caribbean cruise. Another local woman learnt during the night that she had lost her son and two grandsons in the mine.

Coal mining is a dominant industry in West Virginia, one of the poorest and most rural states in the US, directly employing more than 30,000 people according to state statistics. Communities that live in the shadows of the mine rigs and coal heaps can never forget that calamity may be only one spark or collapsed ceiling away. "There's always danger. There's so many ways you can get hurt, or your life taken," said Gary Williams, a miner and pastor of a church near Upper Big Branch. "It's not something you dread every day, but there's always that danger. But for this area, it's the only way you're going to make a living."

Mr Obama said of the accident: "The federal government stands ready to offer whatever assistance is needed in this rescue effort."

A sister-in-law of Mr Willingham said that he had been mining with the Massey company for 17 years. Even though he was due to retire, she wasn't sure he would have stayed away for long. Sheila Prillaman said: "He probably wouldn't have stayed retired long. He wasn't much of a homebody."

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
Powdered colors are displayed for sale at a market ahead of the Holi festival in Bhopal, India
techHere's what you need to know about the riotous occasion
Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
News
Details of the self-cleaning coating were published last night in the journal Science
science
News
Approved Food sell products past their sell-by dates at discounted prices
i100
News
Life-changing: Simone de Beauvoir in 1947, two years before she wrote 'The Second Sex', credited as the starting point of second wave feminism
peopleHer seminal feminist polemic, The Second Sex, has been published in short-form to mark International Women's Day
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Assistant / Credit Controller

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are an award-winning digit...

Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform Engineer - VMware / SAN / Tier3 DC

£45000 - £55000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior VMware Platform En...

Recruitment Genius: Purchasing Assistant

£10000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Ledger Assistant

£17000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A distributor of specialist ele...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

Homeless Veterans campaign

Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

Lost without a trace

But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

Confessions of a planespotter

With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

Russia's gulag museum

Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

The big fresh food con

Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

Virginia Ironside was my landlady

Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

Paris Fashion Week 2015

The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
8 best workout DVDs

8 best workout DVDs

If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

Paul Scholes column

I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable