West Virginia Mine Explosion: 25 Dead, Community Waits on Fate of Missing Miners

The West Virginia community rocked by a massive mine explosion that killed 25 people are holding onto fading hope that the four miners believed to be trapped deep in in the mountainside will be found alive.

"I've never seen anything like it," West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin told "Good Morning America" today, adding that it could take more than 12 hours for rescue workers to drill deep enough in the mine to ventilate the area and test the air quality.

VIDEO: Massey Energy was fined millions for repeated safety violations.Play
West Virginia Mine Explosion Kills 25

Nearly everyone in the community surrounding Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine near Whitesville, W. Va., has been affected by the worst mine disaster in more than 25 years.

President Obama asked for prayers for the men killed, their families and the rescue workers trying to find the miners still missing.

"May they rest in peace and may their families find comfort in the hard days ahead," he said from the East Room of the White House ahead of an Easter prayer breakfast.

Obama reiterated his offer to Manchin that "the federal government stands ready to offer any assistance that is needed."

Eleven deceased miners have been identified so far. Eighteen are still in the mine and 14 of those are known to be dead, leaving more than a dozen families to wonder whether their loved ones died or whether they can hold out hope that they are among the four possibly still alive deep in the mine.

One miner, whose family has not been identified, came out of the mine during the day shift but lost his son, older brother and nephew in the explosion. All three men have been recovered and identified.

But hopes are waning for the men still under the ground. A buildup of toxic methane gas forced rescue workers from the mine early this morning. With the threat of subsequent explosions high, officials decided not to risk more lives to reach those who are still underground.

"From the beginning to the end the best word I can think of to describe the evening was agony," the Red Cross' Sheri McGraw said this morning.

She described how families clung to each other in a holding area, eyes trained on the door waiting for word from mine officials.

"These guys are tough -- tough as nails," Morgan Hall, who lost his best friend in the blast, said. "They know what they're stepping into. You just work safe."

The family of another of the miners who died in the blast said they simply prayed for him.

"We asked the Lord to watch over him," a family member said. "After 30 years in the mines, he said, 'If he takes me tomorrow, I've had a good life.'"

With the vast improvements made in terms of mine safety, technology and education, an explosion of this proportion was likely the result of a perfect storm of events, according to Mike Rohaly, a retired mine engineer who spent about 15 of his 35-year career underground.

"In this day and age this kind of mine disaster is unheard of," Rohaly said. "A lot of bad things have to happen at the same time, in my opinion."

While the tight-knit community is now bonded in shared anguish and grief, Rohaly said he'd expect a range of emotions as friends and family learn more about the accident.

"I'm sure the response will vary all over the board with the miners and their families," Rohaly said. "Some of them will go right back to work, some of them will not have anything to do with mining and move, do whatever they can to get away from it."

Mine Explosion: Distraught Families Wait in Anguish for News

A Facebook page that sprung up shortly after the blast and quickly grew to tens of thousands of members listed condolences, prayers and outrage at mine safety.

"My father was a coal miner in WV in the 1930s," one poster wrote. "He told me of running out of a coal mine as fine silty dust trailed behind him. It appears mining is NO safer now than it was then!"

Massey Energy is one of the nation's largest coal producers, but has had a spotty safety record. The company paid out millions of dollars in fines last year alone after admitting to repeated safety violations.

Manchin said an investigation would come later.

"I don't know what happened," Manchin said. "We're going to find out and do everything in our power to never let this happen again."

Eddie Morris, a rescue task force member and third-generation miner who was at work in a mine more than an hour away raced to the scene after receiving messages that there had been an explosion at Upper Big Branch.

Whether any survivors come out alive, he said, "God has everything to do with it."

Officials had hoped some of those missing were able to reach airtight chambers containing enough food, water and oxygen to help them survive for four days, Kevin Stricklin of the Mine Safety and Health Administration told The Associated Press . But when rescue teams were able to access one of the two nearest chambers, they found it empty.

"It does not appear that any of the individuals made it to a rescue chamber," Stricklin said at a news conference. "The situation is dire."

Benny R. Willingham, 62, a miner who was five weeks away from retiring, was among those who died, his sister-in-law Sheila Prillaman, told the AP.

He had made plans to take his wife on a cruise to the Virgin Islands after retiring, Prillaman said.

She expressed her anger at Massey's handling of the situation, saying family members only learned of Willingham's death when they saw it on a list posted by the company, instead of being contacted by a representative.

Though the ever-present risk coal miners face every day is thrust into the spotlight anytime disaster strikes, Morris said miners just get up and go to work like everyone else.

"There's an inherent risk in there, but there's an inherent risk on the highway," Morris said. "I wouldn't do anything else."

West Virginia Governor: Situation Looks Bleak

The blast could be heard, and felt, for miles.

"Before you knew it, it was just like your ears stopped up, you couldn't hear," miner Steve Smith told ABC Radio. Smith felt the blast while working underground at another site about seven miles away.

"The next thing you know, you're just right in the middle of a tornado," Smith said. "We were able to make it since we weren't that far underground right there at that side of the mountain.

"We just hurried up and high-tailed it back to the outside," he said.

Machin admitted that the situation looks very bleak, but urged people to remain hopeful, pointing to the miracle rescue of Randal McCloy, who survived the 2006 Sago Mine, W.Va., explosion despite being trapped for more than 40 hours in a toxic environment.

"The families want closure," Manchin told reporters. "They want names ... these families are good people. Hard-working people. They understand the challenges. Right now I told them to do what they do best. Love each other and come together as a family."

One of the bereaved in the Sago Mine disaster, who lost his father, was now counseling families distraught over the loss of their loved ones, Manchin said.

The force of the blast was so severe, Manchin said that the rail which "most of your equipment and shuttles and man trips run off [...] look[ed] like a pretzel" after the explosion.

"One of the miners that is missing was on the long wall, three were working in a mine section together," he told reporters.

He said that he expects more information to be released later today, but counseled well-wishers against coming to the site of the explosion, "if they want to help they should help through the local Red Cross and pray."

"In West Virginia our clergy is our grief counselors; I don't know how to explain it, the people were just so solid and they're coming together."

ABC News' Cleopatra Andreadis and The Associated Press contributed to this report.