West Virginia Mine Survivor: Blast Felt Like 'Hurricane-Force Winds'

Crews not expected to reach blast area where miners trapped for 24 hours.

April 6, 2010, 12:53 PM

MONTCOAL, W.Va., April 6, 2010— -- A miner who survived the massive West Virginia mine explosion said he had to struggle through "hurricane-force winds" and flying debris to make it above ground.

Stanley Stewart said he was between 300 and 400 feet under the ground, preparing to start his shift, when the blast hit.

"I told my friends, 'Take your time, so you don't fall.' I was trying not to panic, panic was setting in," he said. "I knew it was bad."

Once out, Stewart said he immediately volunteered to go back in to pull his friends out, but was not allowed to make the rescue attempt.

"Some of the company personnel found some people that were killed," he said, crying. "Some of those were my buddies."

Twenty-five miners were killed in the explosion, which was believed to have been caused by a buildup of methane gas deep in the Upper Big Branch mine . Another four are still unaccounted for.

Rescue workers were chased out of the mangled mine by poisonous gases early today, and officials said that search teams would not be allowed back in until they can test the air in the area where they hope the miners are holed up with clean air.

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said crews will have to drill down about 1,000 feet to be able to release the gases and test the air to determine whether it's safe for rescuers.

An access road had to be cleared to get the heavy equipment into place, but the work went more quickly than had been originally expected.

"The drills are in place now," Manchin said at a news briefing late this afternoon.

Four shafts will have to be drilled to release the methane and carbon monoxide that made the mine too dangerous for rescuers to continue their search. Even though the drills were in place, Manchin said it could be Wednesday night before the first hole is completed.

The tough mining town is holding on to fading hope that the four miners believed to be trapped deep in the mountainside will be found alive.

"You don't give up hope until you actually confirm you have bodies," an official said.

Nearly everyone in the community surrounding Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine near Whitesville, W.Va., has been affected by the worst mine disaster in more than 25 years.

Some residents are already getting angry.

"I don't understand why it had to happen," Janice Florence told "World News with Diane Sawyer." "I thought they had things like alarm systems and things that would go off in the mines.

"They need to be safe," she said. "I just hope they get to the bottom of this."

Stewart said he considered himself lucky that he hadn't gotten very far into the mine when the explosion happened.

"We felt a gush of air, which was abnormal, then all of a sudden it was full-blown blast," he said. "I started running towards the portal. It was like hurricane-force winds, that's the only way I can describe it."

President Obama asked for prayers for the men killed, their families and the rescue workers trying to find the miners still missing.

"May they rest in peace and may their families find comfort in the hard days ahead," he said from the East Room of the White House before an Easter prayer breakfast.

Obama reiterated his offer to the West Virginia governor that "the federal government stands ready to offer any assistance that is needed."

Richard Scarbro, whose friend Deward Scott was killed in the blast as he was leaving the mine at the end of his shift, said "there's no answer."

"We got loved ones to take care of," he said. "Families without fathers, families without grandfathers ... some children not being took care of."

Eleven of the dead miners have been identified so far. Eighteen are still in the mine and 14 of those are known to be dead, leaving more than a dozen families to wonder whether their loved ones died or whether they can hold out hope that they are among the four possibly still alive.

One miner came out of the mine during the day shift but lost his son, Cory Davis; his older brother, Timmy Davis Sr.; and his nephew, Josh Napper, in the explosion. All three men have been recovered.

"I've never seen anything like it," Manchin told "Good Morning America" today.

But hopes are waning for the men still under the ground. A buildup of toxic methane gas forced rescue workers from the mine early this morning. With the threat of subsequent explosions high, officials decided not to risk more lives to reach those who are still underground.

With the vast improvements made in terms of mine safety, technology and education, an explosion of this proportion was likely the result of a perfect storm of events, according to Mike Rohaly, a retired mine engineer who spent about 15 years of his 35-year career underground.

"In this day and age this kind of mine disaster is unheard of," Rohaly said. "A lot of bad things have to happen at the same time, in my opinion."

While the tight-knit community is now bonded in shared anguish and grief, Rohaly said he'd expect a range of emotions as friends and family learn more about the accident.

"I'm sure the response will vary all over the board with the miners and their families," Rohaly said. "Some of them will go right back to work, some of them will not have anything to do with mining and move, do whatever they can to get away from it."

Mine Explosion: Distraught Families Wait in Anguish for News

A Facebook page that sprung up shortly after the blast and quickly grew to tens of thousands of members listed condolences, prayers and outrage at mine safety.

"My father was a coal miner in WV in the 1930s," one poster wrote. "He told me of running out of a coal mine as fine silty dust trailed behind him. It appears mining is NO safer now than it was then!"

Massey Energy is one of the nation's largest coal producers, but has had a spotty safety record. The company paid out millions of dollars in fines last year alone after admitting to repeated safety violations.

Manchin said an investigation would come later.

"I don't know what happened," Manchin said. "We're going to find out and do everything in our power to never let this happen again."

Eddie Morris, a rescue task force member and third-generation miner who was at work in a mine more than an hour away, raced to the scene after receiving messages that there had been an explosion at Upper Big Branch.

Whether any survivors come out alive, he said, "God has everything to do with it."

Officials had said they hoped some of those missing were able to reach airtight chambers containing enough food, water and oxygen to help them survive for four days, Kevin Stricklin of the Mine Safety and Health Administration told The Associated Press. But rescue teams found the nearest of two such chambers 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."

"From the beginning to the end, the best word I can think of to describe the evening was agony," the Red Cross' Sheri McGraw said this morning.

She described how families clung to each other in a holding area, eyes trained on the door waiting for word from mine officials.

"These guys are tough -- tough as nails," Morgan Hall, who lost his best friend in the blast, said. "They know what they're stepping into. You just work safe."

Benny R. Willingham, 62, a miner who was five weeks away from retiring, was among those who died.

He had made plans to take his wife on a cruise to the Virgin Islands after retiring on May 13, his sister Jeanie Sanger told ABC News.

Though the ever-present risk coal miners face every day is thrust into the spotlight any time disaster strikes, Morris said miners just get up and go to work like everyone else.

"There's an inherent risk in there, but there's an inherent risk on the highway," Morris said. "I wouldn't do anything else."

West Virginia Governor: Situation After Mine Explosion Looks Bleak

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 said he felt the blast while working underground at another site about seven 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.

Machin admitted that the situation looks very bleak, but urged people to remain hopeful, pointing to the miracle rescue of Randal McCloy, who survived the explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia in 2006, despite being trapped for more than 40 hours in a toxic environment.

"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."

One of the bereaved in the Sago Mine disaster, who lost his father, was now counseling families distraught over the loss of their loved ones, Manchin said.

The force of the blast was so severe, Manchin said, that the rail that "most of your equipment and shuttles and man trips run off [...] look[ed] like a pretzel" after the explosion.

"In West Virginia, our clergy is our grief counselors," he said. "I don't know how to explain it, the people were just so solid and they're coming together."

ABC News' David Muir, Cleopatra Andreadis and Lee Ferran, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events