Rescuers in West Virginia hoped to renew 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.
Search teams were deep in the Upper Big Branch mine at about 2 a.m. when they were forced back by intolerable levels of highly combustible methane and toxic carbon monoxide gases. Crews planned to bore holes more than 1,000 feet through the coal seams to vent the gases that have built up after the blast Monday afternoon.
"We're hoping that they lived through the initial explosion and were able to get to a refuge chamber," said Kevin Stricklin, the head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
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. Three people have died since 1998 in accidents at the mine, which produced 1.2 million tons of coal last year.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said at a news conference early Tuesday that it could take up to 12 hours before the first hole is finished and rescuers can determine whether the mine is 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," the governor said.
Nine rescue teams were at work trying to extract the miners. 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.
Stricklin said regulators believe a buildup of methane caused the explosion. 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 that the chances are slim that the four miners will 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."
President Obama on Tuesday offered his condolences to the families of the miners killed and praised rescuers who he said are "searching tirelessly and courageously."
"The federal government stands willing to offer any assistance necessary," Obama said.
Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) said the people of his state are "strong and united in prayer."
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.
Davitt McAteer, who led the MSHA under President Clinton, said Tuesday that "we're not doing enough" to make the nation's mines safe. Most coal mines, he said, don't have adequate communications systems and don't take proper precautions against methane buildup.
The West Virginia disaster is the nation's worst mine accident since 27 people were killed in a Utah mine in 1984.
In 2006, 12 miners died after an explosion in the Sago Mine in Tallmansville, W.Va. The following year, six miners and three rescue workers were killed when a wall collapsed in the Crandall Canyon Mine in Emery County, Utah.
NPR's Brian Naylor reported from Montcoal, W.Va.; Erica Peterson of West Virginia Public Radioreported from Charleston, W.Va.