MONTCOAL, W.Va. —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 CEO 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 going to 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.