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Rescue teams creep toward trapped coal miners

Thirteen are stuck more than two miles from mine's entrance

Community members and officials gather Monday at a church near the mine in West Virginia.


  • 2001: Explosions at a Jim Walter Resources Inc. mine in Brookwood, Alabama, kill 13 people.
  • 1992: A blast at a Southmountain Coal Co. mine in Norton, Virginia, kills eight.
  • 1989: An explosion at a Pyro Mining Co. mine in Wheatcroft, Kentucky, kills 10.
  • 1986: A coal pile collapses at Consolidation Coal Co.'s mine in Fairview, West Virginia, killing five.
  • 1984: A fire at Emery Mining Corp.'s mine in Orangeville, Utah, kills 27.

    West Virginia
    Health and Safety at Work
    Disasters (General)

    BUCKHANNON, West Virginia (CNN) -- Two rescue teams slowly navigated a two-mile path Monday night to the site of a coal mine explosion that trapped 13 miners, who had not been heard from since the early morning accident.

    Meanwhile, at a nearby church, more than 250 family members and friends gathered, waiting for updates on the rescuers' progress.

    "It's very upsetting, but you got to be patient, I guess," said John Helms, whose 50-year-old brother, Terry, is trapped in the mine. "The longer we wait, of course, the more you worry about you're not going to find anybody alive."

    The trapped miners were about 260 feet underground and about 10,000 feet from the Sago Mine's entrance, said Roger Nicholson, general counsel for the mine's owner, International Coal Group.

    At a late night news conference, Nicholson said one team had advanced about 4,800 feet in the four hours since entering the mine just before 6 p.m. ET. Another team entered the mine about 30 minutes later. (Watch mine owners describe the slow, careful approach of rescue teams -- 8:08)

    The first crew was expected to be relieved at midnight.

    The teams test the air about every 500 feet, and have to disconnect the power to the phones they use to communicate with the surface before doing so, said Gene Kitts, the company's senior vice president.

    "We don't want to be energizing anything if it's in an atmosphere with combustible gases," Kitts said.

    So far, the rescuers have reported normal levels of carbon monoxide and methane, Nicholson said.

    He said a crew on the surface will drill a small hole through the rock and earth over the accident site and eventually will drop a listening device and sensors to monitor the air quality in the mine shaft. The drilling is expected to take 4-6 hours. (Interactive: Long path to accident site )

    The miners were trapped about 6:30 a.m. ET in the mine about eight miles south of Buckhannon near Tallmansville in Upshur County, officials said. Louise Bleith, operations supervisor at the county's 911 center, said six other miners escaped unhurt. (Map)

    Families of the miners at the church said they received updates "every couple of hours," said Lila Muncy, whose 27-year-old brother, Randall McCoy, was among those trapped.

    "Everybody's just distraught," Muncy said. She said many families weren't notified of the accident until about 10 a.m. -- more than three hours after it happened.

    "I have a very strong bond with my dad, and if something was terribly wrong, I would feel it. And I feel that he is OK. I know that he is a very strong person," said Amber Helms, daughter of Terry Helms.

    Nicholson said earlier Monday that a miner is taught, in the event of an accident, to go to "the safest area he can find, barricade himself and wait for someone to come."

    He said the crew was very experienced, with some members having worked underground for 30 to 35 years. The miners were equipped with about one hour of breathable oxygen each. The company has not released the names of the miners.

    "We're just praying that they've had the opportunity to put their training to use," Kitts said.

    West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin -- who had been in Atlanta, Georgia for the Sugar Bowl football game -- flew home and went to the accident site. He also met with family members and told them not to give up hope.

    The cause of the explosion was not immediately known. High levels of carbon monoxide were detected shortly after the blast, which delayed rescue efforts, but those levels have since subsided, authorities said.

    Dangerous work, good pay

    About 40,000 people work in the coal industry in West Virginia, according to the state mine safety agency.

    The Sago Mine was cited 208 times over alleged safety violations in 2005, up from just 68 citations the year before, The Associated Press reported. Federal regulators' allegations against the Sago Mine included failure to dilute coal dust, which can lead to explosions, and failure to properly operate and maintain machinery, according to the AP report. (Full story)

    Muncy said her brother was drawn to the risky work by the promise of a bigger paycheck than other jobs in the area would have provided.

    "There's not that many opportunities around here, and he felt that was the way to go right now," she said. "He was always very cautious, you know. Every morning he would tell his wife, 'God bless you,' because he always knew the danger."

    A manager at a pizza delivery company in nearby Tennerton said everyone in the communities knows someone who works in the mines.

    "With this size town, everybody should pretty much know everybody," Thomas Wilkins said. "I haven't heard anything about exactly who has been trapped, but pretty much everybody here knows somebody who is in the mining business and possibly could be [trapped]. It's a pretty big thing here."

    According to the Mine Safety and Health Administration, 14 miners were killed underground in 2004, the last year for which data were available.

    In February 2003, three contract workers were killed by a methane explosion while drilling an air shaft at a Consol Energy Mine near Cameron, West Virginia, according to the Associated Press. Three mining deaths occurred in the state in 2005, the lowest total there since 2000, the AP reported.

    In July 2002, nine miners were rescued after being trapped for 77 hours in a mine near Somerset, Pennsylvania.

    The U.S. Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration sent mine safety specialists to the site and said it would investigate the cause of the accident. The agency's Mine Emergency Operations group's command vehicle, equipped with seismic and gas-analysis equipment, and a rescue robot, were en route, officials said.

    International Coal Group, which has mining operations in West Virginia, Kentucky and Maryland, was formed in May 2004.

    Copyright 2006 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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