Search teams found the bodies of four men missing almost a week since an explosion rocked a West Virginia coal mine, bringing the death toll to 29 in the worst US mining disaster in a generation.
Crews who held out hope that survivors might have made it to an airtight chamber awaiting rescue instead discovered their bodies on Friday in the Upper Big Branch Mine, officials said.
“We did not receive the miracle that we prayed for,” Governor Joe Manchin said early yesterday. “So this journey has ended and now the healing will start.”
Since the Sago mine disaster that killed 12 miners in 2006, refuge chambers had been installed in the mine and held enough oxygen and water to survive for four days. None of the chambers were deployed, Manchin said. He also said the miners did not suffer.
The death toll makes it the worst US coal mining disaster since a 1970 explosion killed 38 in Hyden, Kentucky.
Earlier, federal mine safety administrator Kevin Stricklin had said there was no way anyone in the mine could have survived after the blast unless they were in a refuge shelter.
“There’s no way that life could be sustained in that type of atmosphere, even for a short period of time,” Stricklin said.
Officials say the mission now is to recover all 22 bodies still inside the mine about 48km south of Charleston.
Seven other bodies were recovered after the blast on Monday and two other miners were injured.
“It’s hard to turn a rescue into a recovery with the same group of people,” Stricklin said.
During previous rescue attempts, searchers had to withdraw because of dangerous gases and the risk of fire or explosion.
The first time rescuers went in after the explosion they walked past the four missing miners without seeing them, because of the smoke and dust in the area.
The last miner was found around late Friday, Stricklin said.
The federal mine agency has appointed a team of investigators to look into the blast, which officials said may have been caused by a buildup of methane. US President Barack Obama said he wants a report by next week.
In Whitesville, a community about 10 minutes from the mine, four people playing video poker early yesterday retreated from the noisy machines to listen to the governor break the news.
Patty Ann Manios, a city councilwoman, took off her glasses and started to weep. “Oh God. Oh God,” she said.
“It’s heart wrenching,” Manios said. “They didn’t know what hit them. They just didn’t.”
Donna Ward, whose husband works at a different mine, was still crying minutes after the press conference was over.
“I was hoping for four miracles,” she said.
The mine’s owner, Massey Energy Co, has been repeatedly cited for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up. On the day of the blast, Mining Safety and Health Administration cited the mine with two safety violations — one involving inadequate maps of escape routes, the other concerning an improper splice of electrical cable. However, Stricklin said the violations had nothing to do with the blast.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship has strongly defended the company’s record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety.
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