Anxious family members clung to what the governor called a "sliver of hope" Wednesday as rescuers drilled into the coal mine where 25 people died in an explosion, hoping to vent enough poisonous gas to safely get inside and look for possible survivors.
Crews had drilled one hole and were working on several more to release enough methane gas so searchers could enter the Upper Big Branch mine to look for four people still missing in the worst U.S. mining accident in more than two decades.
Kevin Stricklin, an administrator from the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said Tuesday evening at a press conference that crews are getting closer to reentering the mine, and there is a possibility that rescue crews could enter the mine as soon as Wednesday night.
At a 3:30 p.m. press conference, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin and federal mine safety officials said that the methane, carbon monoxide, and hydrogen levels in the mine still far exceeded the level at which rescuers could safely reenter - even with oxygen masks.
The gases are so strong that they were even affecting the drill operators working near the holes above ground. The mine owner installed an angled pipe to redirect the exhaust.
Manchin and others said that the mine families have clearly conveyed that they do not want any rescuers being put in harm's way by entering before the air is safe.
The only circumstance in which any of the four missing miners could have survived underground until now is if they made it to a "refuge chamber" a kind of inflatable bubble in which 15 men can survive for four days.
Manchin has said repeatedly that the chance of survivors is slim and that he and the families can only hope for a "miracle." But if any survivors did make it to a refuge chamber, time is on the rescuers' side. Only 48 hours have elapsed.
It should take less than two hours for rescuers to get to the areas where they think the four missing miners might be, reports CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod. Access to the missing miners is reportedly not a problem. It's only the toxic gas - not debris - hampering the rescue teams.
Krista Bryant believes her 50-year old cousin Ricky Workman is one of the four miners missing. A father of three and grandfather of six, his MySpace page carried poignant messages of hope today.
"I know you're OK, daddy," wrote his daughter. "You promised to talk walk me down the aisle."
"Until we see they're gone - then we face it," Bryant told Axelrod. "We don't sit here saying, 'Oh my god, he's dead, he's dead, he's dead.'"
Kevin Lambert was getting ready to start his shift when the explosion occurred. "Let me tell you about West Virginia: Those guys they survive. We're survivors," he told Axelrod. Lambert - perhaps typically - hopes to get back in the mine before week's end.
The disaster has brought new scrutiny for mine owner Massey Energy Co., which has been repeatedly cited for problems with the system that ventilates highly combustible methane gas. The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration on Wednesday appointed a special team of investigators to , which officials said may have been caused by a build up of methane.
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Records emerged Wednesday showing that Massey was
In 2009, Upper Big Branch was cited 50 times for "unwarrantable failures." And 38 times inspectors wrote "ventilation violations" - a repeated sign the mine was failing to properly remove explosive gases, reports CBS News correspondent Bob Orr. Investigators suspect it was a buildup of methane gas that triggered Monday's blast.
Former mine safety official Celeste Monforton says it's clear that critical warnings were ignored.
"This is not an accident. This is not an accident," Monforton told Orr. Mining engineers dating back 100 years have understood the fatal mix of coal dust and methane and we know how to control those."
But, the mine was not shut down. And Massey repeatedly frustrated regulators. Last year Massey paid only a fraction of the $900,000 in fines levied against Upper Big Branch mine.
That's because Massey appealed 35 percent of the 515 alleged violations, including the most serious ones. By contrast, in 2005 - the year before mine safety laws were toughened - Massey's appeal rate was only four percent.
Like many other mine operators, Massey frequently sidesteps hefty fines by aggressively appealing safety violations at the mine, according to an Associated Press analysis of mine safety records.
Meanwhile, family members could do little but wait Wednesday.
"They know the odds are not in our favor because of the horrificness of the horrendous blast that we had," Gov. Joe Manchin said at a briefing Wednesday morning.
Alice Peters said she was told her 47-year-old son-in-law, Dean Jones, was among the missing, though Massey said Wednesday it does not know which four miners might be alive.
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Seven bodies were pulled out after the explosion, and two miners were hospitalized. Manchin said Wednesday that one was doing well and the other was in intensive care. Eighteen bodies remained in the mine, but emergency workers were only able to identify four before poisonous gas forced them out Monday.
Peters said Jones' wife, Gina, has been at the mine site since the explosion and will not leave.
"She's not doing too good," Peters said. "They told them to go home because they weren't going to let the mine rescuers back in. They're still drilling."
It was not clear how long it would take to vent enough methane so rescuers can enter the mine, but once they do it could take less than two hours for a team to get far enough inside to check for survivors, depending on conditions, said Kevin Stricklin, a Mine Safety and Health Administration official. They would be about 1,000 feet below the surface, and at least a mile-and-a-half from the entrance.
The quality and quantity of coal produced at Upper Big Branch make the mine one of gems of Massey's operation. The mine produced more than 1.2 million tons of coal last year and uses the lowest-cost underground mining method, making it more profitable. The mine produces metallurgical coal that is used to make steel and sells for up to $200 a ton - more than double the price for the type of coal used by power plants.
Federal regulators probing the explosion plan to review Massey's safety violations, many of which involved venting methane gas. If the odorless, colorless gas is not kept at safe levels, a small spark can ignite it.
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
Joseph Main of the Mine Safety and Health Administration said they will begin an investigation into Massey once the rescue effort is completed.
"It's very obvious that something seriously went wrong at this mine," Main told CBS' "The Early Show" Wednesday. Saying a probe would take weeks and months to complete, Main vowed a "pretty extensive investigation."
Appearing Tuesday on CBS' "The Early Show", Gov. Manchin said there would be if safety violations were found to have contributed to the accident.
Massey is still contesting more than a third of all its violations at the Montcoal, W.Va., mine since 2007. In the past year, federal inspectors have proposed more than $1 million in fines for violations at the mine. Only 16 percent have been paid.
In an interview Tuesday with AP, Massey CEO Don Blankenship downplayed the link between the ventilation system and the accident.
"I don't know that MSHA thought there was a problem," he said.
He said the families of those killed were angry and made "a lot of derogatory comments" during meetings with company officials. He said he did not directly address them.
"They're looking for some way to release their anger and that's just the way it is," he said.
He said the chances of miners making it out of the violent explosion alive were dim, and "I think it dims every day."
The death toll in Monday's explosion was the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 people 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 to die in a U.S. coal mine since a 1970 explosion killed 38 at Finley Coal Co. in Hyden, Ky.
Larry Asbury, whose son is on a mine rescue team, joined about 50 mourners who packed the creaky pews of the modest St. Joseph Catholic Church a few miles from the disaster Tuesday to honor the victims and pray that the missing turn up safe.
"The coal community is coming together and praying for miners and their families," he said. "It's just so important to show the community this kind of support."
Manchin said the first drill hole entered the section of the mine about a football field's length away from a rescue chamber where officials hope the miners sought refuge.
Searchers would have to navigate in the darkness around debris from structures shattered by the explosion and around sections of track that were "wrapped like a pretzel," said Stricklin, the federal mine administrator.
"There's so much dirt and dust and everything is so dark that it's very easy, as hard as it may seem to any of us outside in this room, to walk by a body," Stricklin said.
Though the situation looked bleak, the governor 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.