West Virginia Coal Mine Disaster: Funerals Begin as Hope Dwindles

This has been a week filled with desperate anguish for the families of the miners trapped in West Virginia's Upper Big Branch mine. Several times this week, rescuers carrying oxygen tanks TEXT were able to go into the mine to seek the lost loved ones, only to be turned back after dangerous conditions were detected.

Many of the families have been sitting vigil since Monday, hoping – and praying – for a miracle.

Rescue Efforts Daunted

Early this morning, rescue teams almost reached the shelter deep inside the mine that is a potential refuge for the imperiled miners only to be thwarted by a new obstacle – smoke.

The discovery led authorities to believe a fire is still burning, and may have been smoldering for four days now after the explosion. Such a fire is highly unusual and may be a sign that the lethal methane gas has mixed with other gases or has not been effectively ventilated.

"We have to do what we think is right, and unfortunately, in this case it may not be getting to that refuge chamber," said Kevin Stricklin, the coal administrator from the Mine Safety & Health Administration.

Above ground, crews immediately began pumping nitrogen into the mine in an attempt to eliminate the oxygen fueling the underground fire.

Counsel for the Hopeful

Today, President Obama spoke of the courage of the families here, including the Davis family.

Hope For Survivors Dwindles As Funerals For Coal Miners Begin

The mother of the Davis family said she lost her husband and two nephews, and three loved ones are still missing in the mine.

One of her nephews had just written a letter on Monday, before going into that mine to start his shift. President Obama read part of that letter today. "If anything happens to me, I'll be looking down from heaven at you all. I love you. Take care of my baby."

His family believes he somehow knew disaster was about to strike.

Jim Guidone, of the Red Cross, has counseled the families who had hoped their loved ones would be among the missing rather than among the dead.

"All of those children were hoping their fathers would come home … They're leaning on their family, their friends," he told ABC News. "This is perhaps the most difficult time in their young lives."

Time appears to be running out. It's doubtful that rescuers will able to reach the chamber where the miners are hoped to be holed up before the 96-hour oxygen supply kept there is depleted.

Funerals for the Fallen

Meanwhile, up the road from the mine, the first funerals for miners killed on Monday brought tears and hugs. Benny Ray Willingham, 61, and Deward Allan Scott, 58, were laid to rest today.

The funeral director told ABC News, "The worst thing about this whole situation now is the fact that they haven't got the miners … They haven't got them out. And sometimes waiting for something like that is worse than when they actually find out for sure, because you have that little sliver of hope." ------------

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