Monday's mine explosion has now killed at least 25 people and left four others unaccounted for this morning in a small West Virginia town.
The blast was reported at around 3 p.m. at the Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine near Whitesville, W. Va., about 30 miles south of Charleston, W.V.
Seven bodies had been recovered and identified, but the other 18 have not, according to West Virginia governor Joe Manchin, who spoke at a news conference today. Names of the deceased will be released later, the governor said.
A Massey Energy spokesman told reporters the rescue mission has been halted because rising methane gas levels inside the mine made it unsafe in case of another explosion. The rescue mission is expected to continue after bore holes are drilled to allow the methane gas to be ventilated.
This is the worst U.S. mine disaster since 1984.
"All I can see is smoke where it caught the mountains on fire," a woman told ABC Radio from her home in Naoma about 3 miles from the mine.
Seven of the confirmed dead were leaving the mine in a vehicle and were killed by the explosion, Kevin Stricklin with the Mine Safety and Health Adminstration told The Associated Press.
An additional five bodies were discovered by rescue teams upon entering the mine, Stricklin announced at a midnight press conference.
Earlier Stricklin told the Associated Press that 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. 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."
"Everybody's just heartbroken over this and the impact on these families," mine safety director Joe Main told the AP.
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 learnt of Willingham's death when they saw it on a list posted by the company, instead of being contacted by a representative.
"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."
He admitted that the situation looks very bleak now, but urged people to remain hopeful, pointing to the miracle rescue of Randal McCloy Kr, who survived the 2006 Sago Mine explosion despite being trapped for more than 40 hours in a toxic environment.
"I feel there is a responsibility, I've been through it personally and I can sit and pray with them, and talk with them and let them know we are there with them, it's a better setting when we're all together," Manchin said.
One of the bereaved in the Sago Mine disaster, who lost his father, was now counselling families distraught over the loss of their loved ones, Manchin said.