MONTCOAL, W.Va. – Rescuers drilled a first hole into a coal mine where 25 people died in an explosion but got no response from possible survivors when they banged on the drill pipe Wednesday to send a signal. Three more vents needed to be bored to release poison gases before searchers could look for four people still missing in the worst U.S. mining accident in over two decades.
Gov. Joe Manchin said the first hole reached the Upper Big Branch Mine after boring through about 1,090 feet of earth and rock. Rescuers banged on the drill pipe for 15 minutes in hopes of being heard below ground.
"We did not get any response back," Manchin said at an early morning briefing. Officials said they also plan to set off three small explosions on the surface to send a seismic signal to the mine.
Miners are trained to bang back on the drill's casing, Manchin said, and to respond similarly to the surface charges. Sections of mine roof contain numerous metal bolts that help keep it in place and that trapped miners can bang on to signal their presence.
The company that runs the mine, Massey Energy Co., frequently sidesteps hefty fines by aggressively contesting safety violations, including recent problems with the ventilation system that clears away combustible methane gas.
Bombarding federal regulators with appeals is an increasingly common industry tactic since the 2006 Sago mine disaster that killed 12 led to stiffer fines and new enforcement to punish the worst offenders, according to an Associated Press review of records from the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Massey is still contesting more than a third of all its violations at the Montcoal, W.Va., mine since 2007. In the past year, federal inspectors have proposed more than $1 million in fines for violations at the mine. Only 16 percent have been paid.
Federal regulators planned to review its violations, many of which involved venting methane gas. If the odorless, colorless gas is not kept at safe levels, a small spark can ignite it.
In an interview Tuesday with AP, Massey CEO Don Blankenship downplayed the link between the ventilation system and the accident.
"I don't know that MSHA thought there was a problem," he said.
Manchin said the first drill hole entered the section of the mine about a football field's length away from a rescue chamber where officials hope the miners sought refuge from toxic gas.
Two days after the blast that also left two hospitalized, the buildup of methane gas and carbon monoxide was too dangerous for anyone to enter and look for the missing or to recover the bodies of 18 known dead.
Crews continued to drill three additional holes, all of which are meant to monitor the section's air and ventilate it with high pressure fans.
Seven bodies were brought out after Monday afternoon's blast rocked the mine.
Once the mine is ventilated, teams would need four or five hours to reach the area where officials believe the miners are about 1,000 feet beneath the surface, said Chris Adkins, chief operating officer for Massey Energy Co., which owns the mine. The long section is about 20 feet wide with barely enough room to stand, a safety official said.
Searchers would have to navigate in the darkness around debris from structures shattered by the explosion and around sections of track that were "wrapped like a pretzel," said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"There's so much dirt and dust and everything is so dark that it's very easy, as hard as it may seem to any of us outside in this room, to walk by a body," Stricklin said.
The missing miners might have been able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for four days. But rescue teams checked one of two chambers nearby and found it empty. Unsafe conditions prevented them from reaching the second.
Manchin said he continues to meet with the families, but had no updates regarding the two injured miners pulled to the surface after the explosion.
"The families are very resilient," said the governor, flanked by state and federal safety officials. "They know the odds are against us."
The death toll was the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 people died in a fire at Emery Mining Corp.'s mine in Orangeville, Utah. If the four missing bring the total to 29, it would be the most to die in a U.S. coal mine since a 1970 explosion killed 38 at Finley Coal Co. in Hyden, Ky.
At the time of the explosion, 61 miners were in the mine.
Nine were leaving on a vehicle that takes them in and out of the shaft when a crew ahead of them felt a blast of air and went back to investigate, said MSHA administrator Stricklin.
In the area about 30 miles south of Charleston where coal is king, people anxiously awaited word on the missing.
Larry Asbury's son is on a mine rescue team. Asbury joined about 50 mourners who packed the creaky pews of the modest St. Joseph Catholic Church a few miles from the disaster to honor the victims and pray that the missing turn up safe.
"The coal community is coming together and praying for miners and their families," he said. "It's just so important to show the community this kind of support."
Diana Davis said her husband, Timmy Davis, 51, died in the explosion along with his nephews, Josh Napper, 27, and Cory Davis, 20.
The elder Davis' son, Timmy Davis Jr., described his father as passionate about the outdoors and the mines. "He loved to work underground," the younger Davis said. Two other family members survived, he said.
During pauses at Tuesday's service at St. Joseph's, some leaned over and consoled each other.
"It's such a terrible time for West Virginia, but it's so important to ask for God's help," said Bishop Michael J. Bransfield.
Though the situation looked bleak, the governor pointed to the 2006 Sago Mine explosion that killed 12. Crews found miner Randal McCloy Jr. alive after he was trapped for more than 40 hours in an atmosphere poisoned with carbon monoxide.
Associated Press writers Greg Bluestein, Allen G. Breed, Vicki Smith, Tom Breen and Tim Huber in West Virginia and Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this report.