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25 Dead, 4 Missing After W.Va. Coal Mine Blast

A truck drives down the road near the Upper Big Branch Mine on April 6, 2010 in Montcoal, West Virginia.
Matt Sullivan
A truck drives down the road near the Upper Big Branch Mine on April 6, 2010 in Montcoal, West Virginia.

Rescuers in West Virginia were forced to suspend efforts to reach four missing coal miners Tuesday following a massive underground explosion that killed 25 people in the worst U.S. mining disaster in decades.

Crews planned to bore holes deep through the coal seams to vent a buildup of highly combustible methane and toxic and carbon monoxide gases in the Upper Big Branch mine that had built up after the blast Monday afternoon.

The cause of the explosion is still not known, but safety officials say the Massey Energy Co.'s mine in the town of Montcoal, about 30 miles south of Charleston, has been cited in the past for failing to properly vent methane. In recent years, three people have died in accidents at the mine, which produced over a million tons of coal last year.

The four missing miners could not be located before methane flooded the mine, forcing out rescue crews. The three drill holes will need to augur through more than 1,000 feet of earth and rock, officials said.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said at a news conference early Tuesday that it may take up to 12 hours before the first hole was finished and rescuers could determine if the mine would be safe to enter.

Manchin said he's hoping for a miracle that the miners will be found alive.

"It's going to be a long day and we're not going to have a lot of information until we can get the first hole through," he said.

Nine rescue teams were at work trying to extract the miners.

Kevin Stricklin of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said regulators believe a build up of methane caused the explosion, but the concentration of the gas makes it impossible to continue the search.

"We have seen the gas concentrations … go down," he said. "As I said, we’re focused on getting in there as quickly as possible."

Stricklin acknowledged the chances were slim that the four miners would be found alive but said he is not giving up hope. Asked exactly where in the mine the explosion took place, he said, "That's not something that we're looking at right now. We're focused on a rescue operation."

Each chamber in the mine is supposed to be equipped with rescue breathing equipment and stocked with enough food and water to last for four days.

A total of 31 miners were in the area during a shift change when the blast occurred. Stricklin said some may have died in the blast and others may have perished after breathing the gas-filled air. Manchin said 11 bodies had been recovered and identified, but the remaining 14 have not.

"Everybody's just heartbroken over this and the impact on these families," said mine safety director Joe Main, who was headed to West Virginia.

In a statement early Tuesday, Massey Chairman and CEO Don Blankenship offered his condolences to the families of the dead miners.

"Tonight we mourn the deaths of our members at Massey Energy," Blankenship said.

The disaster is the nation's worst mine accident since 27 people were killed in a Utah mine in 1984.