MONTCOAL, W.Va. (AP) – Levels of noxious gas dropped Thursday in a coal mine where 25 workers died in an explosion, giving rescuers hope that they might be able to get inside soon to look for four still missing.
Teams spent more than four hours working their way through the Upper Big Branch mine by rail car and on foot in the morning, but had to turn back because of an explosive mix of gases in the area they needed to search.
Crews at the surface resumed drilling in an effort to get fresh air into the mine. Gov. Joe Manchin said Thursday evening that the levels were near those considered safe.
"We're just moving as quickly as we can," Manchin said. "We want to bring the loved ones back."
Rescue teams had made it within 500 feet of an airtight chamber with four days worth of food, water and oxygen where they hoped the miners might have sought refuge Monday after the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than two decades.
Chris Adkins, chief operating officer for mine owner Massey Energy Co., said the rescue teams were angry when told to abandon the mission, but their safety was paramount. He said the teams are off their feet and resting, but too anxious to sleep.
Massey's chief executive officer, Don Blankenship, continued to defend his company's record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety.
"To some extent the fact that there were more survivors than those that are lost suggests that the mine was in pretty good shape relative to what mines would have been in the past and hopefully by today's standards," he told The Associated Press in an interview Thursday. There were 61 miners in Upper Big Branch when it was rocked by the blast.
Despite the increasingly slim chance of finding anyone alive, Adkins said he considered Thursday's effort a rescue mission.
"I still believe in God, I believe, and I'm not gonna give up," he said.
The rescue crews did not get far enough to see the bodies of the dead or if anyone had made it to the chamber. They knew where the bodies would be because rescuers made it that far before gases forced them out of the mine after the explosion Monday.
Officials were not sure what caused the high gas levels this time but said a drop in barometric pressure as a storm rolled in might be to blame.
The rescue crews were leaving their equipment behind so they did not have to lug it back in with them when they returned.
Manchin said the families of those stll in the mine were being patient.
"These are the strongest, toughest people I've ever seen," he said. "These people can handle about anything you put up."
Rescuers had already had to wait to enter the mine until crews drilled holes deep into the earth to ventilate lethal carbon monoxide and highly explosive hydrogen as well as methane gas, which has been blamed for the explosion. The air quality was deemed safe enough early in the day for four teams of eight members each to go in, but later tests showed the air was too dangerous to continue.
Adkins said rescue teams described seeing evidence of "a horrendous explosion and a lot of destruction."
He also said they may have found an alternate route that will allow them to get where they need to be faster when they can safely go back in.
Once that happens, rescuers will have to walk through an area officials have described as strewn with bodies, twisted railroad track, shattered concrete block walls and vast amounts of dust. Each team member wears 30 pounds of breathing equipment, lugs first-aid equipment and must try to see through total darkness with only a cap lamp to light the way.
Even some family members acknowledged they didn't expect to find any of the four missing miners alive days after the massive explosion.
"In my honest opinion, if anyone else survives it, I will be surprised," said James Griffith, who works at the mine. His brother, William "Bob" Griffith, went to work Monday and never came home. William Griffith's brother-in-law, Carl Acord, died in the explosion.
Two miners were injured in the blast but managed to get out. One was in intensive care. Cathy Boyd, a nursing supervisor at Raleigh General Hospital, said Thursday that the miner had been released but his family has asked for privacy. Earlier Thursday, Manchin said the miner was in "total withdrawal" and doesn't want to speak to anyone.
Seven bodies were pulled out Monday and at least 18 remained in the mine.
The federal mine agency has appointed a team of investigators, and President Barack Obama said Thursday that he has asked federal mine safety officials to report next week on what may have caused the blast.
The mine is outfitted with air-quality sensors that shut down some of the mining machinery when methane levels reach a high level.
Manchin it's unclear whether the methane levels reached that point prior to the blast, or whether the sensors detected it. However, the positioning of several bodies in an underground rail car begs the question: "Did a sensor not go off?" the governor said Thursday.
"The miners that they found, it doesn't look like anyone was alarmed or warned that something as this horrific was going to happen," Manchin told The Associated Press. "When you find people just sitting in the mantrip, as if they're just waiting to go out and they're still there? That tells me there was no panic."
Even with high gas levels inside the mine, there must have been a source of ignition, Manchin said, and it's unclear what that might have been.
Massey has been repeatedly cited for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up, including two large fines assessed in January when federal inspectors found dirty air flowing into an escapeway where fresh air should be, and an emergency air system flowing in the wrong direction. Miners were so concerned about the conditions that several told their congressman they were afraid to go back into the mine.
Even the day of the blast, the federal mine agency cited the mine for two safety violations, one involving inadequate maps of escape routes, the other concerning an improper splice of electrical cable. Kevin Stricklin of the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration said, however, that those violations had nothing to do with the explosion.
Blankenship, the Massey CEO, has strongly defended the company's record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety. On Thursday, he began using the social networking site Twitter to communicate about the disaster.
"Pray for the families and the rescue workers," he tweeted. He also praised the rescue efforts and got in a dig at what he called the "indignity of much of the media."
He told AP in an interview Thursday that the company would pay funeral expenses for the miners killed in the blast. He also said he does not think the company has any information about methane levels in the mine before the explosion.
The Upper Big Branch mine produced more than 1.2 million tons of coal last year and uses the lowest-cost underground mining method, making it more profitable. It produces metallurgical coal that is used to make steel and sells for up to $200 a ton — more than double the price for the type of coal used by power plants.
Associated Press Writers Allen G. Breed, Greg Bluestein, Tom Breen, Dena Potter, Tim Huber and John Raby and videojournalist Mark Carlson in West Virginia; Mitch Weiss and Mike Baker in North Carolina; Ray Henry in Atlanta; and Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this report.
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