CHARLESTON, W.Va. —Federal inspectors found a string of safety violations at a sprawling West Virginia coal mine in the months and days leading up to an explosion that killed 25 this week , including two citations the day of the explosion.
Two full days after the disaster, dangerous gases underground prevented rescuers Wednesday from venturing into the mine to search for any survivors.
Crews drilled holes deep into the ground to release the gases, but by late afternoon the levels of lethal carbon monoxide and highly explosive hydrogen and methane remained far too high for searchers to look for the last four people missing.
"We just can't take any chances" with the lives of rescuers, said Kevin Stricklin of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. "If we're going to send a rescue team, we have to say it's safe for them to go in there."
Officials could not say when rescuers might be able to go in.
Records reviewed by the Associated Press paint a troubling picture of procedures at Massey Energy Co.' s Upper Big Branch mine, the site of Monday's explosion in the heart of West Virginia coal country. Safety advocates said the mine's track record, particularly a pair of January violations that produced two of the heftiest fines in the mine's history, should have provoked stronger action by the mine operators and regulators.
In the January inspection, regulators found that dirty air was being directed into an escapeway where fresh air should be. They also found that an emergency air system was flowing in the wrong direction, which could leave workers without fresh air in their primary escape route.
Terry Moore, the mine foreman, told officials that he was aware of one of the problems and that it had been occurring for about three weeks.
"Mr. Moore engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence in that he was aware of the condition," the Mine Safety and Health Administration wrote in fining the company a combined $130,000.
While records indicate those problems were fixed the same day, the mine's operator, Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co., continued to rack up citations until the day of the blast. MSHA inspectors ticketed the mine Monday over inadequate maps of escape routes and an improper splice of electrical cable on a piece of equipment.
The most serious violations could have warranted a criminal investigation, said Tony Oppegard, a Clinton appointee who served as the adviser to the assistant secretary of MSHA for 2 1/2 years. Oppegard said regulators should have determined that the mine has a "pattern of violations," a rarely used distinction that can allow officials to shut down operations.
"Had it been on a pattern of violations, maybe 25 lives or more would have been saved," Oppegard said.
Family members could do little but wait.
Alice Peters said she was told her 47-year-old son-in-law, Dean Jones, was among the missing, though Massey said it does not know which four miners might be alive.
Peters said Jones' wife, Gina, has been at the mine site since the explosion and would not leave. "She's not doing too good," Peters said. "They told them to go home because they weren't going to let the mine rescuers back in. They're still drilling."
Miner William Griffith's family was preparing for the worst. Griffith went to work Monday and never came home, said his brother, James Griffith, who also works at the mine. William Griffith's brother-in-law, Carl Acord, died in the explosion.
"In my honest opinion, if anyone else survives it, I will be surprised," James Griffith said.
Doug Griffith, another of William Griffith's brothers and also a miner, sat down with his family after getting a briefing on the rescue effort, said his wife, Cindi.
"He just said we really need to prepare for the worst," she said. "They don't feel like there's any hope."
Seven bodies were pulled out after the explosion, and two miners were hospitalized. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said Wednesday that one was doing well and the other was in intensive care. Eighteen bodies remained in the mine, but emergency workers were able to identify only four before methane forced them out Monday.