West Virginia hoping for a miracle in mine disaster

By Jon Hurdle and Joe Rauch

MONTCOAL, West Virginia (BestGrowthStock) – Drills boring into a West Virginia coal mine on Wednesday carried hope for a “miracle” rescue of four miners missing after a blast killed 25 people in the worst U.S. mine disaster in a quarter century.

The explosion happened on Monday at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine, 30 miles south of the state capital Charleston. Eleven dead have been identified, three of whom were related, and 14 bodies were still in the mine.

Giant drills were slowly drilling down 1,100 feet in a bid to hit a 20 foot (6 meter) long chamber where authorities believe the missing miners could be. The drills are due to break through on Wednesday afternoon, said Chris Adkins, Massey Energy’s chief operating officer.

The drilling aims to release any dangerous build up of gases in the mine and will allow rescuers to try and contact the missing miners.

“That mine is so full of methane gas and all kinds of toxins that if someone went in there now they would take one breath and they would die,” West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller told CNN on Tuesday evening.

“We hope there will be a miracle,” he said.

In 2006, Randal McCloy was rescued from a coal mine in Sago, West Virginia, nearly 42 hours after a blast killed 12 of his co-workers.

Shares of Massey Energy closed down more than 11 percent on the New York Stock Exchange. The Richmond, Virginia-based company is the largest coal producer in Central Appalachia, operating in West Virginia, Kentucky and Virginia.

Analysts said Massey might suffer a short-term financial hit from the disaster, but Wall Street was bullish on the company’s long-term ability to ramp up production to reap higher prices for steel-making coal.

Questions have also been raised by some experts and observers about the company’s safety record and the laws governing the mining industry. Mining has always been a dangerous job, but 2009 was the safest ever for U.S. miners, with 34 deaths, according to federal data, 18 fewer than 2008.

“It’s horrible to say this, but sometimes it takes a mine disaster to galvanize the Congress (to change mining laws), most of which knows nothing about coal,” said Rockefeller.

‘WE DON’T REALLY KNOW WHAT TO SAY’

Massey’s accident rate fell to an all-time low in 2009, the sixth consecutive year its safety record was stronger than the industry average, the company said on its website.

But Upper Big Branch Mine has had three fatalities since 1998 and has a worse-than-average injury rate over the last 10 years, according to federal records. Ellen Smith, editor of Mine Safety and Health News, said the mine has been repeatedly cited for safety violations.

Don Blankenship, chief executive officer of Massey Energy, told ABC’s “World News” that the mine disaster was caused by “an explosion of some sort, but we’re not clear what happened yet, we don’t really know what to say about it.”

“All the safety people we have on hand, all felt this was a safe coal mine,” Blankenship added.

Kevin Stricklin of the U.S. Mine and Safety Health Administration said investigators would leave “no stone unturned” to find out what happened.

In Washington, President Barack Obama said the federal government was ready to assist the rescue operation and urged Americans to pray for the miners.

The Upper Branch Mine blast is the country’s deadliest mining disaster since 1984, when 27 miners died in a fire in Utah, according to the U.S. Mine Rescue Association.

In the worst coal mine disaster in U.S. history, 362 miners died in an explosion in 1906 in West Virginia’s Monongah mine.

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(Writing by Michelle Nichols, editing by Eric Beech)

West Virginia hoping for a miracle in mine disaster