Mine Explosion Kills 25, Many More Missing in W. Va.

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.

Tense Moments at a MinePlay
Tense Moments at a Mine

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.

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

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.

Underlining the close ties between many of the miners, he drew attention to a particular family (not identified by name) where one member, who had worked the day shift, lost his son, his older brother, and sister's son when the explosion occurred.

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 counselled 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."

Witnesses Say Blast Felt Like a 'Tornado'

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 7 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.

At least one of the injured miners was taken by helicopter to the Charleston Area Medical Center where a triage area has been prepped since the announcement of the explosion, a hospital spokesperson told ABC News.

One of the injured miners passed away on the way to the hospital, the governor said. A further two are still in hospital, with one in intensive care, according to Charleston Area Medical Center spokeswoman Elizabeth Pellegrin.

Don Blankenship, chairman and CEO of Massey Energy, confirmed the reported dead and missing "with a heavy heart."

"Our top priority is the safety of our miners and the well-being of their families," Blankenship said in a statement. "We are working diligently on rescue efforts..."

Methane Gas Poses Big Risk to Miners

President Obama contacted Gov. Manchin and "promised to make every asset available," the governor's office said.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said he was "heartbroken" by the news and offered condolences and words of hope to the families of the miners involved.

"I know our dedicated first responders and local community members are doing everything they can to rescue as many people as possible and I thank them for their incredible efforts," Rockefeller said in a statement.

He told CNN that responders from at least three counties were involved in the rescue operation.

"Mine rescue operations in West Virginia are incredibly aggressive. They have to fight their way through the fog… sometimes its hard for them to get to the mine.. it's a horrible, horrible process," he told CNN.

The risk of methane gas build-up inside mines has led federal and state regulators to demand that mine operators store extra oxygen supplies inside mines. In addition to airtight containers stocked with oxygen, all miners at the Upper Big Branch also carry an oxygen container on their belts.

West Virginia law also stipulates that mines have wireless communications and tracking systems which work despite explosions and other accidents. But Stricklin said today that large parts of the network were likely to have been destroyed in the blast.

The mine is operated by a Massey subsidiary, Performance Coal Co., and employs around 200 workers, according to company disclosures filed with the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration.

AP: 3 Previous Deaths at Mine

At least three people have died at the mine in the last 12 years, according to the AP.

In 1998, a worker was killed when a support beam holding cement mix fell on him, according to the federal Mine Safety & Health Administration.

In 2001, a worker at the mine died after part of a roof collapsed on top of him, and in 2003 an electrician was electrocuted to death while repairing a shuttle car.

In 2009, Massey, the nation's sixth-largest mine company, agreed to pay $4.2 million in fines for a 2006 accident at another Massey-owned mine in West Virginia that killed two miners. The federal mine safety administration cited the company for 25 violations that the agency said contributed to the deaths.

Last year, Massey celebrated what it called a record setting year for safety and its sixth consecutive year in which Massey's safety performance, based on lost-time accidents, beat the industry average, according to the Massey Energy Web site.

In response to the blast, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis released a statement saying, "The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration will investigate this tragedy, and take action [...]. Miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood."

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