Mine probe awaits recovery of 9 bodies

CHARLESTON, W.Va. —Federal investigators arrived Monday at the West Virginia mine where 29 men died in an explosion last week to begin piecing together what caused the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1970.

Thirty miles north, hundreds of mourners including the governor observed a moment of silence at the state Capitol during a wreath-laying ceremony at the foot of a statue honoring the state's miners.

Karen Barker, 46, of Charleston, was among scores of state workers who attended. "My dad was a miner and my grandfather was a miner. I have no idea how these people feel about losing their family member, but I can imagine," she said.

The team of inspectors at the Upper Big Branch mine weren't heading underground until searchers finished the grim task of removing the final nine bodies from the mine. The team from the Mine Safety and Health Administration briefed Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and MSHA director Joe Main at the mine.

The last bodies were expected to be taken out of the mine Monday afternoon, state mine office spokeswoman Jama Jarrett said. Recovery efforts had been stalled by volatile gases, but teams had entered by early Monday after the tunnels were ventilated.

The state panel that writes mining safety rules and typically reviews mine inspectors' reports after the investigations are complete said Monday that it would like to join the investigators underground this time.

Richmond, Va.-based Massey has been under scrutiny for a string of safety violations at the mine, though CEO Don Blankenship has defended the company's record and disputed accusations that he puts profits ahead of safety.

Authorities have said high methane levels may have played a role in the disaster. Massey has been repeatedly cited and fined for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up.

Mourning continued Monday, exactly a week after the explosion, with the ceremony at the state Capitol and a moment of silence at 3:30 p.m. President Obama on Monday ordered all U.S. flags in the state flown at half-staff until sunset Sunday.

Beneath a sunny sky, several hundred people held hands and prayed aloud during the ceremony. Four black-ribboned wreaths were placed at the memorial, as more than a dozen family members of those killed looked on. The largest bore white roses for each miner killed, and two yellow roses for the injured. Twenty-nine yellow helmets were lined up in front of the statue, a black ribbon on each.

A bell rang 29 times, for each of the fallen miners. During a moment of silence that followed, sobs could be heard both from the family and the crowd thronged around them with heads bowed.