Rescue operations are on hold until at least Wednesday morning at a West Virginia mine where 25 people have been killed and four miners are still missing.
The mine owner - in coordination with state and federal officials - is drilling two 1,100 holes in order to vent explosive gas from the mine. Rescuers who entered the mine yesterday encountered high methane, low-oxygen conditions and were forced to retreat.
"We cannot do anything more at this time," said Chris Atkins, chief operating officer for mine owner Massey Energy. "We cannot enter the mines without putting people at risk."
Instead the drills will likely continue boring until Wednesday afternoon or evening, so the noxious air can be vented with high-pressure fans. Massey said they have to hit within about a 20 foot area to be successful and two drills are being used because of the uncertainty. Two others may be put to work before sundown.
The two working drills are only about 160 feet down so far.
"We told the families … nothing is really going to change a lot between now and 8 o'clock in the morning," West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said at a 5 p.m. press conference. "Everything on hold right now."
Manchin and Atkins said that the miners' families were encouraged to use the interim time to eat or rest, but that they suspected few would leave the disaster site.
Also on hand at the press conference were state and federal mining regulators, state legislators, and U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, who suggested that the disaster may prompt a new look at federal mining statutes, many of which haven't been updated in three decades. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was also on the scene of the disaster.
People in this small coal town prayed and hung banners in front of their homes Tuesday as rescuers remained held back by the poison gases that accumulated near the blast site, about 1.5 miles from the entrance to Massey Energy Co.'s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine.
They had to create an access road above it before they could begin drilling the shafts to release methane and carbon monoxide.
Manchin said that rescuers and officials realize that the miners face "long odds" of surviving the initial blast - if they did - their time trapped underground.
"I don't want to give anybody any false hope, but by golly if I'm on that side of the table and that's my father or my brother or my uncle or my cousins, I'm going to have hope," he said.
CBS "Early Show" co-anchor Harry Smith reported Tuesday from the scene of the disaster that, although the cause of the blast is yet to be confirmed, a buildup of highly flammable methane gas is suspected.
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Thirty-one miners were underground at the time of the explosion. Two are now hospital. Seven of those killed have been identified and removed from the mine. Four other bodies have been removed but remain inside the mine. Fourteen bodies in the mine have not been identified. And four unidentified miners are still missing.
That unusual situation has left more than a dozen families clinging to hope that their loved ones are among the four still unaccounted for - and perhaps clinging to life.
The explosion is believed to have happened during a shift change, Smith reports and the miners were in three groups at the time of the blast. One group - the only with known survivors - was leaving the site in a vehicle known as a "mantrip." The four unaccounted for were the deepest in the mine.
Appearing on CBS' "The Early Show" Tuesday, Manchin said there would be if safety violations were found to have contributed to the accident.
"I want to find out, and I want to make sure that if, there's anything we can do to correct it, we'll do it, because we've done it before."
Speaking at an Easter prayer breakfast, President Barack Obama extended his to the families of the workers and asked those in the audience to pray for "those who have been lost in this tragic accident" He said he hopes their families can "find comfort in the hard days ahead."
In an area where coal is king, people anxiously awaited word. Someone hung a "Praying 4 Our Miners" banner outside a home, and at Libby's City Grill in nearby Whitesville, the accident was the talk at every breakfast table. Owner James Scott was grieving his own loss - his 58-year-old uncle, Deward Scott, was among the dead.
Neither his uncle nor his customers talked much about their work.
"I never heard anyone say anything about the mine, good or bad," James Scott said. "You just don't talk about it."
Mining is a dangerous business and virtually everyone in Westcoal has stories of a relative who's been hurt or killed in a mining accident, Smith reports. And while the last two years were among the safest in us mining history no one there was deluded into thinking this was work without risk.
In the month leading up to the fatal blast inside the Upper Big Branch mine, inspectors repeatedly cited Massey for serious safety infractions. Seven separate times the coal operator was hit with "ventilation violations" for failing to develop and carry out plans to monitor and remove dust and combustible gas from the mine, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Orr.
"They had a doubling of their citations from 2008 to 2009. They had a tripling of the penalties," former mine safety official Davitt McAteer told Orr. "That period suggests to you that you've got a problem."
Massey vigorously contested many of the alleged violations and paid just a fraction of the nearly $900,000 in fines levied last year. Sen. Rockefeller specifically cited the problem of companies mounting endless appeals - which forestall the possibility of consequences like being shut down - in his comments Tuesday evening.
McAteer says alarms should have been sounding.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship drew criticism four and a half years ago with an internal memo to supervisors in which he seemed to stress productivity over safety, saying, "we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills."
"Even if it wasn't stated, if you're saying that production is the most important part of our operation, you're implying that safety is not the most important part," mine safety attorney Tony Oppegard told Orr.
But Blankenship later said his memo had been misconstrued and that safety was not "secondary."
"We've cut the accident rate at Massey probably about 90 percent over the time that I've been president … Our goal is zero," Blankenship told Smith in
Some grieving relatives were angry because they learned their loved ones had died from government officials, not from Massey Energy executives.
"They're supposed to be a big company," said Michelle McKinney, who found out from a local official at a nearby school that her 62-year-old father, Benny R. Willingham, died in the blast. He was due to retire in five weeks after 30 years mining, 17 with Massey. "These guys, they took a chance every day to work and make them big. And they couldn't even call us."
Blankenship said in an Associated Press interview Tuesday that he has attended briefings with family members, but largely left contact to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and Massey representatives. He said he was in the room when relatives were notified of the full extent of the tragedy, but the scene was so emotional that he did not interact with them.
Three members of the same family were killed in the blast. Diana Davis said her husband, Timmy Davis, 51, died in the explosion along with his nephews, Josh Napper, 27, and Cory Davis, 20.
The elder Davis' son, Timmy Davis Jr., said his brother, Cody Davis, and an uncle, Tommy Davis, survived the blast. His brother was taking it particularly hard because he and their father were best friends.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin on "The Early Show":
Timmy Davis Jr. described his dad as passionate about the mines.
"He loved to work underground," the younger Davis said. "He loved that place."
Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the situation looked grim for the missing miners.
"All we have left is hope, and we're going to continue to do what we can," he said.
At the quiet entrance to the mine along the Coal River Road on Tuesday, the few people present were all in uniform. State troopers in green and sheriff's deputies in black and gray waved traffic along and stopped motorists and reporters who tried to park on the broad shoulder for photos. Dozens of ambulances that had been parked there had mostly cleared out.
Officials hoped the four were able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for them to live for four days, but rescue teams checked one of two such chambers nearby and it was empty. The buildup of gases prevented teams from reaching other chambers.
A total of 31 miners were in the area during a shift change when the explosion rocked the mine, about 30 miles south of Charleston.
"Before you knew it, it was just like your ears stopped up, you couldn't hear and the next thing you know, it's just like you're just right in the middle of a tornado," miner Steve Smith, who heard the explosion but was able to escape, told ABC's "Good Morning America."
Blankenship said a carbon monoxide warning was the first sign of trouble. Mine crews were checking on the alarm when they discovered an explosion had occurred deep inside the mine.
"I don't know that we know what happened," he said.
Some of those killed may have died in the blast and others when they breathed in the gas-filled air, Stricklin said. Eleven bodies had been recovered and identified, but the other 14 have not. Names weren't released.
Manchin said investigators still don't know what ignited the blast, but methane likely played a part.
The death toll is the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 died in a fire at Emery Mining Corp.'s mine in Orangeville, Utah. If the four missing bring the total to 29, it would be the most killed in a U.S. coal mine since a 1970 explosion killed 38 at Finley Coal Co., in Hyden, Ky.
"There's always danger. There's so many ways you can get hurt, or your life taken," said Gary Williams, a miner and pastor of New Life Assembly, a church near the southern West Virginia mine.
Though the situation looked bleak, Manchin said miracles can happen and pointed to the 2006 Sago Mine explosion that killed 12. Crews found miner Randal McCloy Jr. alive after he was trapped for more than 40 hours in an atmosphere poisoned with carbon monoxide.
In Monday's blast, nine miners were leaving on a vehicle that takes them in and out of the mine's long shaft when a crew ahead of them felt a blast of air and went back to investigate, Stricklin said.
They found seven workers dead. Others were hurt or missing.
Massey Energy, a publicly traded company based in Richmond, Va., has 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee. It ranks among the nation's top five coal producers and is among the industry's most profitable. It has a spotty safety record.
Victims' families speak to "The Early Show":
CBS News investigative producer Laura Strickler reports that, according to the MSHA, Massey was fined $897,325 in 2009 and paid $168,393 of that fine. Already in 2010 the mine has been fined $188,769 and has paid $2,676 to date.
In the past year, federal inspectors fined the company more than $382,000 for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment at Upper Big Branch.
Massey was also at the center of a major Supreme Court case in 2008, after its CEO Don Blankenship was sued and then accused of basically buying a friendly seat on the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, reports CBS News legal analyst Jan Crawford.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that state Supreme Court justice Brent Benjamin should have recused himself from the appeal of a $50 million jury verdict against Massey, because Blankenship spent $3 million to get him elected to the state court.
In the case at issue, a rival mining company had sued Blankenship and Massey, saying they'd tried to drive him out of business, and the jury agreed. The state Supreme Court overturned that verdict - with Benjamin in the 3-2 majority - which led to the U.S. Supreme Court appeal.
The mine company has had three other fatalities in the last dozen years.
Coal mining rakes in more than $2 billion every year for West Virginia's economy, and puts roughly 30,000 people to work, but CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod reports violations combined with archaic safety equipment have led to tragic losses of life and placed mining companies under a microscope of scrutiny.
Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining, and federal records say the Eagle coal seam releases up to 2 million cubic feet of methane gas into the Upper Big Branch mine every 24 hours.
In mines, giant fans are used to keep the colorless, odorless gas concentrations below certain levels. If concentrations are allowed to build up, the gas can explode with a spark roughly similar to the static charge created by walking across a carpet in winter, as at the Sago mine, also in West Virginia.
The Eagle seam produced 1.2 million tons of coal in 2009, according to the mine safety agency, and has about 200 employees.