Two miners missing as fire erupts in West Virginia mine
Published: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 6:09 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 20, 2006 at 6:09 a.m.
Rescue teams searched deep inside a coal mine Friday for two miners missing after an underground conveyer belt caught fire. Nineteen others had reached the surface safely and waited in a church with relatives in a scene reminiscent of another West Virginia mine disaster less than three weeks earlier.
The fire started Thursday evening inside the Alma No. 1 Mine operated by Massey Energy subsidiary Aracoma Coal, about 60 miles southwest of Charleston, officials said.
The rescue crews had yet to make contact with the two missing miners more than 20 hours after the fire started, said Doug Conaway, director of the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training.
"There's still a lot of this mine that we haven't been able to examine, and hopefully will be able to as soon as we can get that fire under control," he said.
The missing miners had just entered the mine for their evening shift when a carbon monoxide monitor, about 10,000 feet from the mine entrance, set off an alarm at 5:36 p.m., said Doug Conaway, director of the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training.
About 10 minutes later, the company told the miners to get out, Conaway said.
The two were part of a group of 12 miners who encountered smoke as they left, put on breathing gear and continued to the surface, but only 10 of them made it out. Nine other miners in another part of the mine also escaped.
Gov. Joe Manchin was at the mine Friday morning, and the miners' families and colleagues gathered at the nearby Brightstar Freewill Baptist Church to wait for news.
It was a scene all too familiar to West Virginia. In early January, the governor had joined another group of miners and relatives of missing miners after an explosion at the International Coal Group's Sago Mine, on the other side of the state. Twelve miners died in the disaster. The sole survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., 26, remained hospitalized in a light coma Friday.
"Sago is very fresh in everybody's mind, but this is a different scenario," Manchin said Friday. He said the families were hopeful but added, "They know that the odds are a little bit long."
Massey spokeswoman Katharine W. Kenny said, "We're very optimistic."
Friday morning, two of the rescue teams at the Aracoma mine were more than 10,000 feet inside and had reached the conveyer belt fire, Conaway said.
They tried to continuing on but the smoke was too thick, so they had to turn their effort to putting out the fire, Conaway said. Fire teams were using foam and water in that section, which has six miles of tunnels.
"We're making an effort here to contain the fire. We've seen it from a couple of different places but we don't know the extent of it," Conaway said. "The teams are in the process now of trying to fight that fire and get it under control."
Air samples from an existing hole near the fire showed elevated levels of carbon monoxide, although not as severe as levels at the Sago mine. At one point, rescue teams were in the mine without breathing gear, Conaway said.
"We're working as hard as we can ... to find those two miners," Conaway said.
Jesse Cole, with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said listening equipment would be set up to try to locate them.
Haskell Sheppard, 29, works the overnight shift as a repairman on the main conveyor belt that brings the coal out. He said the line where the fire broke out had problems in the past, but nothing as serious as this time. Officials did not know how the fire started.
"Things are bound to tear up every once in a while," he said.
According to MSHA's Web site, the Alma mine received 95 citations from MSHA inspectors during 2005. The most recent were issued on Dec. 20, when the mine was cited with seven violations ranging from controlling coal dust and other combustible materials to its ventilation plan.
The mine was assessed $28,268 in penalties last year and it has paid nearly $13,000.
It has not had a fatal accident since 1995. The mine had a better-than-average accident rate between 2001 and 2004, but it increased last year when 16 workers and one contractor were injured.
On the other side of the state Friday, four U.S. senators were meeting with families of the 12 coal miners killed at the Sago Mine.
"What I hope today's visit provides is momentum to accomplish the most important mine safety legislation of a generation," Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said.
Rockefeller was joined by Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee Chairman Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.; Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., the committee's ranking Democrat; and Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., chairman of the subcommittee on employment and workplace safety. Enzi's committee has oversight of mine safety.
Investigators have yet to determine the cause of the Jan. 2 explosion. Rockefeller said the senators would conduct hearings on the disaster next week.
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