Mine blast's magnitude, debris stun rescuers

MONTCOAL, W.Va. —An underground explosion that killed at least 25 coal miners created a fireball so intense that it tossed rail cars and twisted steel rail lines, officials said Tuesday, as rescue efforts aimed at finding four missing miners who might have survived the ghastly blast continued.

Crews worked feverishly Tuesday to carve an access road and drill three 1,000-foot-deep ventilation shafts into the craggy mountain to release the lethal buildup of poisonous methane gas and carbon monoxide that officials believe may have caused the disaster, as well as a fourth tunnel for rescue operations.

But officials said rescue teams may not be able to enter the vast Upper Big Branch mine safely until this evening, adding an agonizing wait to the heartbreak that already has devastated this Appalachian community in southern West Virginia.

Gov. Joe Manchin said rescuers still hoped to find the last four miners alive in an airtight emergency chamber that rescuers couldn't reach before an initial search was suspended as too dangerous at 2 a.m. Tuesday.

But the grim-faced governor made clear that the nation's deadliest mining accident since 1984 left little room for optimism.

"I don't want to give anybody false hope," he told a news conference. "Maybe there could be a miracle."

Manchin said the first rescue teams had been stunned to see that the ferocious blast more than a mile inside the Earth had tossed heavy rail cars like toys and twisted steel rail lines "like a pretzel."

"It had to be a horrific explosion to cause that kind of damage," he said.

The fierce explosion ripped through the mine at about 3 p.m. Monday, and the news spread quickly.

Congressional hearings are expected and state and federal mining safety officials announced an investigation of the accident. They aimed sharp criticism at the mine owner, Massey Energy Co.

The mine had been cited for 600 violations in less than a year and a half, some of them for not properly ventilating methane — the highly combustible gas suspected in the blast.

The disaster at the Upper Big Branch mine has focused attention on the business and safety practices of Massey Energy, a powerful and politically connected company in Appalachia known for producing big profits, as well as numerous safety and environmental violations and large damage awards for grieving widows.

"There are mines in this country who have operated safely for 20 years," said J. Davitt McAteer, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in the Clinton administration. "There are mines who take precautions ahead of time. There are mines who spend the money and manpower to do it."

He added: "Those mines haven't been blown up."

Last year alone, MSHA cited Upper Big Branch for 495 violations and proposed $911,802 in fines. Production more than tripled during that period, according to federal records. So far this year, the agency has found 105 violations at the mine.

Upper Big Branch is one of Massey's biggest underground mines, with more than 200 employees, and it is not uncommon for big coal mines to amass hundreds of violations a year — and to contest many of them, as Massey does. But most big mines don't have as many serious infractions as Upper Big Branch, industry experts said.

At least 50 citations charge the company with "unwarrantable failure" to comply with safety standards such as following an approved ventilation plan, controlling combustible materials or designating escape routes.

"I've never seen that many for one mine in a year," said Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety & Health News. "If you look at other mines that are the same size or bigger, they do not have the sheer number of 'unwarrantable' citations that this mine has."

"It's quite evident that something went very wrong here to have an explosion of this magnitude," said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, part of the U.S. Labor Department. "We'll leave no stone unturned to get to the bottom of what went wrong."

Eleven bodies have been recovered and identified, but 14 others are still entombed in the mine, not including the four missing men.