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Rescue efforts continue after deadly mine blast

Rescuers pressed ahead on Wednesday with efforts to find four coal workers trapped after a devastating mine blast, although officials conceded it would be a "miracle" if the men were still alive.

world Updated: Apr 07, 2010 19:05 IST

Rescuers pressed ahead on Wednesday with efforts to find four coal workers trapped after a devastating mine blast, although officials conceded it would be a "miracle" if the men were still alive.

Three days after the tragedy, relatives and friends continued an agonizing wait, in hopes that the men survived both the powerful explosion and a buildup of poisonous methane and carbon monoxide that officials believe caused Monday's blast.

Officials were hopeful that the miners might have been able to survive the worst US mine disaster in more than two decades by sheltering in an airtight emergency chamber.

But West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin conceded that the situation looked grim.

"I don't want to give anybody false hope," he told reporters at a news conference Tuesday.

Workers early on Wednesday continued to bore holes through rock to try to vent toxic gases from the mine, so that air could be pumped in and rescue workers can enter.

Manchin said that so far four holes had been drilled through hundreds of meters of rock into the area of the mine where the missing miners are believed to be holed up.

But he said it would still be hours more before officials would be in a position to determine whether conditions inside the mine were safe enough to send rescue teams back in.

At least 25 miners were killed in the massive explosion that tore through Upper Big Branch mine here Monday as miners were in the middle of shift change.

The bodies of 14 miners confirmed killed remained un-recovered inside the mine, after the buildup of explosive gases forced authorities to suspend a search for the four missing miners.

Meanwhile, the surrounding community, still numbed by shock, expressed anger at the mine's operator, a unit of Massey Energy, the fourth biggest US coal producer, which has been plagued over the years by safety issues.

Massey chief executive Don Blankenship defended the company's safety record, telling a local radio station that the "top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families."

But he also acknowledged that he did not expect the missing men to walk out of the mine.

"I don't have a lot of hope that they're alive," he said.

"We always have hope, but given... the appearance of the explosion that was described by some of the rescue team members that I talked to, I don't give it much hope."

Manchin said survivors had described their shirts being blown off by the force of the blast, which turned rail lines and heavy equipment into bent and twisted wreckage that he said looked like pretzels.

"It was of mammoth proportion, the explosion, a methane buildup, and that lowers the percentage of your chances.

Everyone knows that we're working against long odds," the governor told CNN.

President Barack Obama sent his "deepest condolences" and "prayers" to the families and the close-knit mining community, which local leaders said was still stunned by the tragedy.

"Most people are saying that they just don't believe it. We lost so many good guys," pastor Tobie Hilderbrand told AFP.

"The mine is a way of life for most of the people in this area... everyone is affected."

West Virginia US Senator Jay Rockefeller said he would visit the mine to survey the rescue effort, and promised that there would be a thorough investigation in Congress.

"We will leave no stone unturned in determining how this happened and in taking action for the future," he said in a statement.

The mine owner and operator have been cited repeatedly for potentially dangerous conditions, including high levels of combustible methane gas, and Massey paid out 4.2 million dollars in criminal and civil fines last year.

The disaster was the worst coalmine mishap since December 1984, when a fire in a mine in Utah killed 27 workers.

The last major mine explosion in this coal mining state occurred in January 2006, when 12 people died in a mine owned by the International Coal Group in Sago, West Virginia.

An explosion trapped the workers in that accident 260 feet (80 meters) underground. One miner survived.

The worst US mining disaster ever was in 1907 in Monongah, West Virginia, where an explosion killed 362 workers.