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W. Virginia Blast Leaves 13 Coal Miners Trapped

Nothing is heard from the missing workers. Deadly gas hinders rescuers' descent.

January 03, 2006|Jonathan Peterson and Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writers

TALLMANSVILLE, W. Va. — Rescue workers hampered by silence, debris and deadly gas struggled through the night Monday to reach 13 coal miners trapped almost 300 feet underground by a powerful explosion in a mine shaft.

Public safety officials said late Monday that they had heard nothing from any of the trapped miners after an early morning explosion caved in a section of the Sago Mine more than 260 feet below the surface.

The blast occurred amid raging thunderstorms, and the mine's owners speculated that lightning might have been the cause. However, government officials said they were not certain of the explosion's origin.

By nightfall, search teams had begun to move cautiously on foot down the darkened, sloping shaft to the spot where the miners were thought to have been caught by the cave-in. By 10 p.m. EST, rescuers had proceeded about 4,800 feet into the shaft, still more than 8,000 feet away from where the miners were believed to be trapped.

"We've got rescue teams underway, and we're trying to get some holes drilled to get air samples," said Terry Farley, an administrator with West Virginia's Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training.

But there was only silence from underground. "So far, we've got no communication," Farley said.

Two rescue teams were "leapfrogging," alternating in the lead, as they made "good progress" deep into the shaft, according to Jim Spears, secretary of West Virginia's Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety. "We have a good idea where they are."

But the rescue teams were slowed, officials said, by concerns about air quality and efforts to ensure they had adequate oxygen as they descended. The teams had to wait more than 12 hours until officials drilled holes in the area above the cave-in site to vent and test for carbon monoxide, an odorless, colorless and toxic gas that may have built up inside the shaft after the explosion.

"The air is holding up," said West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, indicating that the threat of fire inside the mine shaft was subsiding. He added that more drill rigs had been dispatched to the disaster site.

"You just have to hope that the explosions weren't of the magnitude that was horrific from the beginning," Manchin told CNN before meeting with relatives of the trapped miners. "There's always that hope and chance that they were able to go to part of the mine that still had safe air."

Rescue crews also were preparing to drill deeper borings to lower a listening device to scan for sounds of life. And federal mine safety officials rushed a rescue robot to the cave-in site, located in a hilly, rural area about 100 miles northeast of Charleston.

More than 250 relatives and friends of the missing miners gathered half a mile from the mine at the Sago Baptist Church, a white clapboard chapel up a steep, muddy road where tents were set up for a vigil that could last for days.

Deep into the night, stunned relatives shuttled between the church and a parking lot outside, huddled against the January chill in hunting jackets and sweaters, talking together in hushed knots or worrying alone.

Randy Toler stood by himself, his thoughts turned to his uncle, Martin, the missing foreman of the trapped crew. Toler, an X-ray technician, had once worked as a miner under his uncle's watchful eye.

His family had been at the church most of the day "trying to comfort each other," he said. "We're just holding onto every shred of hope you can hold onto."

Inside the small church were several hundred more residents going through the same anguish -- "praying, crying, eating, singing," Toler said.

Red Cross volunteers brought in dozens of cots and blankets and neighbors streamed in with food trays and urns of coffee and hot chocolate.

But the generosity did little to ease the mounting dread that left haggard-faced men and women pacing inside the church.

"It's everybody's worst fear," said Linda Feola, a Red Cross volunteer who lives five miles from the mine. "Most of these folks won't go to bed. They're going on adrenaline until they get word about their loved ones."

Officials and relatives said the trapped men ranged in age from their 20s to their 50s. Although some had worked in the mines for as long as three decades, others had been at it for only a few years.

"We're waiting for any inkling of hope for them to get out," said Lila Muncy, who told CNN that her brother, Randall McCloy, 27, was one of the trapped miners.

McCloy had worked three years as a mine "bolter" -- paid to prop up mine shaft roof supports. Leery about the perils of his job, Muncy said, McCloy never left the house at the start of his shift each morning without telling his wife: "God bless you."

"Everybody's just distraught," she said.

When the blast occurred, the men were carrying only their lunches, goggles and one-hour air canisters but no extended-use oxygen tanks.

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