West Virginia Mine Rescuers to Make Third Attempt to Claim Missing, Killed Miners

MSHA chief Kevin Strickland said officials want to honor a promise to families.

MONTCOAL, W.Va., April 8, 2010 — -- Families of West Virginia coal miners killed or missing in Monday's mine explosion soon may see an end to their agonizing wait to be reunited with their loved ones.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and MSHA chief Kevin Strickland said two eight-man rescue and recovery teams are headed deep inside the Upper Big Branch coal mine tonight, pulling out all the stops to honor a 96-hour commitment made to the families to get to four miners who could still be alive inside a rescue chamber.

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, but officials say the air quality is slowly improving.

"We have to try to get in there sometime," said Strickland. "We have to get people in there tonight."

Mine workers will pump nitrogen, a fire suppressant, into the mine to try to neutralize the toxic air and render it inert, said Strickland. Since nitrogen eliminates oxygen, recovery teams will need to wear oxygen masks.

Officials estimate it will take about 90 minutes for the crews to get to the area of the two refugee shelters, where their first priority will be to see if any of the miners unaccounted for made it inside. The airtight chambers contain enough oxygen, food and water for men who may have made it there to survive. Gov. Manchin has said everyone involved realizes that the chance of survivors is a "long shot."

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 have been unable to account for the others.

Manchin reiterated that the families of the miners, many of whom have huddled at the accident site since Monday night, are still clinging to a "sliver of hope."

Meanwhile, throughout these 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 Thursday's 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's 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., just 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 American mine disaster in a quarter century.