- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 3, 2006

TALLMANSVILLE, W.Va. — Rescuers entered a coal mine last night after waiting almost 12 hours for dangerous gases to clear, following an explosion that trapped 13 miners underground.

The condition of the miners was not known. Four co-workers tried to reach them but were stopped by a wall of debris, and the blast knocked out the mine’s communication equipment, preventing authorities from contacting the miners.

It was not known how much air they had, how big a space they were in or how far down they were trapped. The miners had air-purifying equipment but no oxygen tanks, a co-worker said.

The first of eight search-and-rescue teams entered the Sago Mine, more than 11 hours after the blast trapped the miners. Rescue crews were kept out of the mine for most of the day while dangerously high levels of carbon monoxide — a byproduct of combustion — were vented through holes drilled into the ground, authorities said.

A company official said the trapped miners were believed to be about two miles inside the mine, about 260 feet under the ground. The rescue crew entered the mine on foot for fear of sparking another explosion.

“You just have to hope that the explosions weren’t of the magnitude that was horrific from the beginning,” Gov. Joe Manchin III told CNN. The governor of the nation’s No. 2 coal-mining state added: “There’s always that hope and chance that they were able to go to part of the mine that still had safe air.”

Officials refused to estimate how long it would take to reach the miners. Gene Kitts, a senior vice president at the mine’s owner, International Coal Group, described the rescue effort as “a very slow, very careful, methodical process.”

The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration sent a rescue robot to the mine, situated about 100 miles northeast of Charleston.

About 200 co-workers and relatives of those trapped gathered at the Sago Baptist Church, across the road from the mine.

Based on interviews with family members, the trapped miners include: Alby Martin Bennett, 50, of Buckhannon; David Lewis, 28, Jim Bennett, 61, and Jack Weaver, 52, of Philippi; Terry Helms, 48, of Newberg; Randall McCloy, 27, of Simpson; Fred Ware Jr., 59, of Tallmansville; and Marshall Winans, 49, of Talbert.

Coal mine explosions are typically caused by buildups of naturally occurring methane gas, and the danger increases in the winter months, when barometric pressure can release the odorless, colorless and highly flammable gas.

Manchin spokeswoman Lara Ramsburg said the blast may have been sparked by lightning from severe thunderstorms.

But Roger Nicholson, general counsel for ICG, said it was not clear what caused the blast and that there was no indication it was methane-related.

The mine has a single entrance, and the shaft winds its way for miles underground.

The blast was detected between 6 a.m. and 6:30 a.m. as the first shift of miners entered to resume production after the holiday, Miss Ramsburg said.

“As they were heading in, the car in the back either heard or felt some type of explosion. They headed back out. The first car never made it back out,” she said.

Miners who work in the mine carry individual air-purifying systems that would give them up to seven hours of clean air, said Tim McGee, who works at the mine. They do not carry oxygen tanks, he said.

Mr. Kitts said the company was preparing to drill into the mine to reach the miners.

“If the miners are barricaded, as we hope they are, they would prepare themselves for rescue by rationing,” Mr. Kitts said. The miners would probably have only their lunches and water on hand.

“These miners are experienced. They are well-trained,” Mr. Kitts said. “We are just praying they had an opportunity to put their training to use.”

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