The vigil at a coal mine in Tallmansville, W.Va., where dozens of well-wishers waited hour upon hour for word of 13 miners trapped 260 feet underground, is a scene that has become much more infrequent in coal country - a result of vast improvements in US mine safety.
For an industry that endured at least 1,000 fatalities a year through the 1930s and '40s, the death toll of 28 in 2004, the latest figure available, underscores the achievement of stricter government oversight and corporate compliance, experts and officials say.
Still, coal miners account for about half of all mining-related fatalities - an indication that the men and women who plumb America's coal seams continue to encounter hazardous, potentially deadly conditions like the explosion that rocked the International Coal Group (ICG) mine in West Virginia on Monday.
In 2003, 16 mining fatalities occurred in underground mining work with a fatality rate of 35.7 per 100,000 workers, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Of those, 11 occurred in coal operator mines. Coal contractors had the highest fatality rate, at 212.8 per 100,000 operator employees, the institute reports.
At press time Tuesday, hopes began to sag that the trapped miners would be rescued, after air-quality tests inside the mine showed carbon-monoxide readings triple the maximum safe level. Rescue workers also sent a camera into a hole drilled into the mine, to look for signs of the miners, and planned to move in a camera-equipped robot.
The blast occurred at about 6:40 a.m. Monday, trapping the miners below the surface of the mine, located about 100 miles northeast of Charleston.
By early Tuesday, rescuers had penetrated more than 9,000 feet into the coal mine but returned to the surface before the drilling crew punched into the mine. Officials thought the rescue team should exit in case the drilling caused a buildup of carbon monoxide, said Ben Hatfield, chief executive officer of ICG.
The federal government is helping in the rescue efforts. "We are praying and hoping for the best," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.
The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has rescue and safety specialists on scene, has set up a command center, and has brought in a rescue robot able to explore areas that wouldn't be safe for human rescuers.
The notion that mining ranks among the most dangerous occupations, in terms of on-the-job fatalities and injuries, may be misguided. "Of the 5,559 total work-related fatalities that occurred in 2003, only 56 (about 1 percent) occurred in coal and mineral mining," according to the National Mining Association website, which used data from the MSHA and the Bureau of Labor Statistics to calculate the number. Mining, the website notes, appears far down the list, behind trade, transportation, and public utilities (25 percent), construction (20 percent), and farming, forestry, and fishing (13 percent).
Coal mine explosions are typically caused by buildups of naturally occurring methane gas. The danger increases in winter, when the barometric pressure can release the odorless, highly flammable gas. The mine had been idle Saturday and Sunday, for the New Year's holiday.
ICG acquired the Sago Mine last March when it bought Anker West Virginia Mining Co., which had been in bankruptcy. The Sago Mine had annual production of about 800,000 tons of coal, the company said.
Federal inspectors cited the mine for 46 alleged violations of federal mine health and safety rules during an 11-week review that ended Dec. 22, according to records.
The more serious alleged violations, resulting in proposed penalties of at least $250 each, involved steps for safeguarding against roof falls, and the mine's plan to control methane and breathable dust. The mine received 208 citations from MSHA during 2005, up from 68 citations in 2004.
Safety at the mine has improved since ICG took over, said Gene Kitts, a company senior vice president. "We think we are operating a safe mine. We have no real clue about what triggered this explosion."
• Material from Associated Press was used in this report.