MONTCOAL, W.Va. (BP)–Dangerous levels of explosive gases forced rescuers to retreat from the West Virginia coal mine where 25 men were killed and four remained missing April 8.
Four teams of eight rescuers each reentered the mine around 5 a.m. Thursday after being forced from the underground tunnel on Monday, the day of the deadliest mining explosion in more than 25 years.
Officials and family members were hopeful that the rescuers could reach the potential survivors in an airtight safety chamber by noon, but by mid-morning the levels of carbon monoxide, hydrogen and methane gas had risen to unacceptable levels and the teams were pulled out.
“We think they are in danger, and that’s why we’re taking them out of the mine,” Kevin Stricklin, an administrator with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said.
Crews planned to drill another hole in the ground to ventilate more of the air in hopes the rescuers could resume their search after 6 p.m.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin told reporters that family members waiting for news about their loved ones understand that the delay won’t affect any of the miners who may be holed up in the rescue chamber, USA Today reported.
“It’s a sliver of hope, but if they’re in the rescue chamber, they’re OK,” Manchin said. “If I have an explosion, I lose 32 rescue workers.”
The chamber contains enough food, water and oxygen to sustain miners for four days, which would mean they could survive through Friday.
Rescuers, each saddled with 30 pounds of breathing equipment, must navigate about five miles into the dark mine past bodies, twisted metal, broken concrete and other signs of the explosion to reach the area where officials believe the missing miners could be located.
When they were pulled out Thursday morning, the rescuers were within approximately 1,000 feet of that location, reports indicated.
“This is a scenario that we didn’t want,” Manchin said.
Meanwhile, family members continue to hold a nonstop vigil near the mine, waiting for any news that could encourage them of their loved ones’ survival. Southern Baptist pastors were among the volunteers on hand to counsel the family members during the tense time.
On Wednesday night, about 300 people walked silently through the streets of nearby Whitesville in a candlelight vigil for the dead and the missing, and by Thursday obituaries of some of the victims appeared in local newspapers.
For instance, The Charleston Gazette carried an obituary for Deward Scott, 58, who died in the mining accident. The newspaper said he was “of the Baptist faith” and was a U.S. Army veteran who enjoyed hunting and fishing.
In addition to his wife and two children, Scott is survived by seven grandchildren “and one grandchild on the way.” His funeral was scheduled for Friday.
Manchin this week ordered that all West Virginia state flags be flown at half staff in honor of the victims of the Upper Big Branch mine explosion.
Compiled by Baptist Press staff writer Erin Roach.