Rescue and recovery teams were pulled from the Upper Big Branch coal mine early this morning after smoke from a fire somewhere deep inside the West Virginia mine made the route to a rescue chamber, where four missing miners could be holed up, impassable.
Crews managed to check one refuge for potential survivors before retreating, but they found it had not been deployed.
"It's very emotional for all the rescuers," a weary West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said.
Officials are working feverishly to drill a third bore hole near the second unchecked rescue chamber so they can send down a camera to see whether miners got there in the first place.
"It does not look like we'll physically be able to get there," said Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Kevin Strickland, who, along with Manchin, had promised families of the missing miners they'd reach the scene within 96 hours.
Mine workers will begin pumping nitrogen, a fire suppressant, into the mine to try to neutralize the toxic air and render it inert, Strickland said. Because nitrogen eliminates oxygen, recovery teams will need to wear oxygen masks if and when they return.
"The thing that is unknown is exactly where this fire is at," he said.
For families of West Virginia coal miners killed or missing in Monday's mine explosion, it's an agonizing wait to be reunited with their loved ones.
Previous attempts to reach the chambers, and the bodies of more than a dozen fallen miners, were suspended after an explosive mix of gases in the mine made conditions too dangerous.
Efforts to ventilate the mine by drilling bore holes to release the potentially explosive air have proven tedious, and officials say air quality likely won't improve until the fire is under control.
Manchin continues to call this a "rescue" mission, although he has said that the chance of finding survivors is a "long shot." The airtight refuge chambers contain enough oxygen, food and water for men who may have made it there to survive, but it's unclear how well they withstand fire and heat.
At least 25 men were killed Monday evening when a massive explosion rocked the mine just as workers were undergoing a shift change. Rescuers recovered eight bodies in the immediate aftermath, but conditions prevented them from bringing out the others.
Meanwhile, throughout the quiet mountain communities near Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine, people remain glued to their TV screens and radios, hungry for news updates on the tragedy even though some outside the area may have turned their attention elsewhere.
"I go home and I'm fixated on the TV, [local] channel 6 and 11," said Anthony Buzzard, 42, of Comfort, W.Va., a miner who spent years in Upper Big Branch and worked closely with many of the men killed or missing. "It's heartbreaking."
Nearby, inside Flint's Hardware in Sylvester, W.Va., a store manager fought back tears as she shelved bags of nuts and bolts while a small TV above the gun section aired a report on the mine rescue "set back."
'Glued to the TV': A Community Waits to Reunite With the Lost
"We're holding out hope, but assume they're dead," said Shelli Rinchich of Comfort, W.Va.
Rinchich, 28, said she's trying to stay connected the "old-fashioned way," by word of mouth through a close-knit network of local families and friends.
"There are no cell phones here," she said.
At Arvons Floral in downtown Whitesville, W.Va., where workers scrambled to fill orders for funeral bouquets, manager Georgia Price said she has been constantly tuned to TV or the radio.
"We are at a loss of what to say anymore," she said. "But we really want to hear what's going on."
In Whitesville, W.Va., five miles north of Montcoal, a forlorn Christy Williams barely held her emotions together from behind the cash register at a Rite Aid pharmacy. She said working inside, without a direct line to the recovery effort, has been painful.
"We have to wait for ambulance drivers or policemen to stop in to ask what's going on," she said. "If you come back here, just let us know something, please."
Williams said even though members of the town are incredibly distraught, they'll pull together to get through this time. But life will never remain the same, she said.
Monday's explosion was the worst U.S. mine disaster in a quarter century.