West Virginia coal mine still too toxic for rescue mission

Rescue efforts were focused on drilling holes into the coal mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, to vent toxic gas. But Wednesday evening, the situation was still too dangerous to send in a team.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin explains drilling locations to locate and rescue miners on a map of the Upper Big Branch coal mine owned by Massey Energy Company in Montcoal, W.V., Wednesday.

Families of the four miners still missing after Monday’s explosion in the Upper Big Branch coal mine were holding out what West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin called “a sliver of hope” on Wednesday that the miners made it to one of the mine’s sealed rescue chambers.

Rescue efforts continued to be delayed as officials waited for toxic gas to abate to safe levels. Crews had drilled one hole to release gas, were working on two more, and had planned a fourth and fifth by Wednesday evening. But methane levels were still dangerously high, and the presence of hydrogen and carbon monoxide gases was complicating efforts.

“We just can’t take any chances of the rescue teams going into an area that could in and of itself cause a problem or an explosion or put them in a smoke concentration,” said Kevin Stricklin of the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) at a briefing.

The explosion, which took place Monday afternoon, killed 25 miners and injured two others. It is the deadliest US mining disaster in at least 25 years.

So far, signs have not been very promising. Rescue workers, before being forced to turn back by the gas levels on Tuesday, described very bad conditions, and Mr. Stricklin and others have said the miners are likely only alive if they were able to reach one of the mine’s rescue chambers – a scenario which Stricklin on Tuesday said might have been difficult, given the strength and suddenness of the blast. Such rescue chambers are equipped with four days worth of food and water for miners to use in an emergency.

Still, West Virginia Governor Manchin has made clear that at this point, it’s still a rescue operation. Families of those four miners “know the odds are not in our favor,” Manchin said at a news conference, “but that’s what we’re holding onto…. We’ve been working against long odds since Day One.”

It’s unclear when rescue workers will be able to enter. Once they do, they’ll need to travel about 8,000 feet to reach the area of the mine where officials believe the trapped miners to be. Workers were also trying to get a camera down into an unexamined rescue chamber through a drill hole to look for signs of life. A pipe was lowered down on Wednesday and officials banged on it for about 15 minutes, but received no response.

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