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."