April 8th, 2010
07:41 PM ET

Air inside mine remains dangerous

[Updated at 7:40 p.m.] Air inside the West Virginia mine where four miners may be trapped remains too dangerous for rescuers to enter, Gov. Joe Manchin told reporters Thursday evening.

[Updated at 10:20 a.m.] Rescuers in a West Virginia coal mine have had to turn back because of deteriorating air quality, Gov. Joe Manchin said.

The rescue crews were on the way out as of about 10:15 a.m. ET Thursday, said Kevin Stricklin of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Gases pose an "explosive atmosphere" in the mine, he said. "We think they (the rescuers) are in danger and that's the whole intent of evacuating."

The rescuers - 32 in all - were attempted to reach four miners who are unaccounted for following a Monday explosion that killed at least 25 miners.
Officials hope the missing miners were able to reach an airtight rescue chamber.

"It is still a rescue mission," Stricklin said.

[Updated at 8:41 a.m.] Thirty-two rescuers in four teams were working their way through a sprawling West Virginia coal mine Thursday, attempting to reach a rescue chamber where it is hoped four unaccounted-for miners may have sought refuge following a Monday explosion, Gov. Joe Manchin said.

The teams entered the mine about 4:55 a.m. ET, Manchin said. They went in following a two-day effort to improve air quality inside the mine, using bore holes drilled over the area where the miners are thought to be.

"We're still in a full rescue mode," Manchin said. But, he acknowledged, the only chance the miners are still alive following the blast Monday afternoon is if they managed to reach the airtight rescue chamber.

The rescuers are proceeding on a "man-trip," a rail car designed to carry miners into mines. At some point, however, they will need to start advancing on foot, the governor said.

Depending on the conditions they encounter in the mine, officials hope the rescuers are able to reach the chamber by noon ET, Manchin estimated.

Twenty-five miners died in the blast Monday at the Upper Big Branch South mine, about 30 miles south of Charleston, West Virginia. Two others are hospitalized and the fate of the other four is unknown.

Eighteen bodies have been located underground. Families of the miners - some of whom have kept vigil for days at their gathering place - have been told that recovery of the bodies may depend on conditions, but every effort will be made to bring the bodies out, Manchin said.

The governor said as he spoke to the relatives, he could "see some relief that closure is getting near ... they want to move on."

Though the rescue teams will be carrying their own oxygen, "there's a hope that they wouldn't have to use it," Kevin Stricklin with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) said earlier. Still, he added, "They have to be prepared to go into bad air."

Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor for MSHA, said earlier the rescue teams were going into areas that could have risky levels of carbon monoxide contamination.

The plan is for the teams to head directly to two refuge chambers located about five miles from the mine entrance where any survivors would likely have holed up, Stricklin said. The decision to send the teams in came after air samples taken from the bottom of the mine confirmed initial results that the air was no longer explosive.

One of the four unaccounted-for miners, along with the other 18 dead, was working in an area where "longwall cutting" was taking place. The technique uses a large grinder to extract the coal, and creates large amounts of coal dust and methane - both of which are explosive.

The other three miners are believed to be in a new development area of the mine about 2,000 feet away.

"It's our hope that we have designed a plan that we get the rescue teams safely in and safely back out," Main said. "As we proceed there will be judgments made about how far to continue the rescue effort based on the conditions that they run into. This is always an activity we get into in mine rescue."

Rescue teams who entered the mine on Tuesday were forced to turn back because unsafe levels of methane and carbon monoxide posed a risk of a second explosion.

Thirty-one men were working in the mine at the time of the blast Monday afternoon, said Chris Adkins, chief operating officer for Massey Energy Company, which owns the mine. The bodies of seven miners were removed.

[Posted at 6:38 a.m] Four rescue crews are in a sprawling West Virginia coal mine, working their way to a chamber where it is hoped four unaccounted-for miners may be following an explosion Monday, Gov. Joe Manchin said Thursday.

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