Search for West Virginia coal miners ends tragically

Death toll from Monday's Upper Big Branch Mine explosion stops at 29
Last four miners found dead last night - search ends - investigation begings

Special to CapeCodTODAY and PlymouthDailyNews by Dick Farley

Montcoal, WV -- Shortly after midnight this morning, West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin announced to reporters and a bank of television cameras that the search for four remaining coal miners, missing since the Monday explosion of the Upper Big Branch Mine, has ended tragically, bringing the final death toll to twenty-nine.


Waiting at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

Until the four missing miners' remains were found last night, rescuers held faint hope that some or all of them had made it into an underground safety structure, but officials said the escape space had "not been deployed."

Seven bodies had been brought out of the mine earlier in the week, and several funerals were held yesterday.

Manchin and federal mine safety officials overseeing the search and recovery operations had already spoken with the miners' families, the governor said at a news conference.

"Our journey is over," Manchin said, "and now the healing will begin."

Without power underground and with conditions in the mine still too dangerous to use underground transport systems, if any were even still functional, it will take most of the night for crews to carry the remaining twenty-two bodies out of the mine. The bodies will be taken to Charleston, the state capital, for medical examiners to determine a cause of death before the miners' remains are returned to their families for burial, officials said.

Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) onsite incident commander Kevin Stricklin said bodies of three of the four missing men were found at the entrance to the "longwall" Section 22, where searchers had expected them to be. The body of the fourth man was found farther inside the longwall section, apparently where he had been working at the time of the explosion.

Manchin and Stricklin both said preliminary findings suggest the explosion was both sudden and violent, as the positions and locations of the dead miners did not suggest that there had been any alarm or panicked effort to escape. But the Upper Big Branch Mine reportedly has been plagued with what experts have described as an unusually high number of violations of ventilation effectiveness as well as inadequately mapped escape routes.

Stricklin said a complete investigation of what happened to spark the explosion could take up to a year, once forensic assessments of all electrical equipment, a complete detailed survey of the mine and interviews with survivors and everyone employed at Upper Big Branch Mine have been completed and all data is analyzed.

The mine is owned and operated by Massey Energy, a Virginia-based company. Massey also operates surface mines in Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky. Among its operations are a number of so-called "valley fill" surface mines employing controversial "mountain top removal" methods, which slice off the tops of steep hills and mountains to expose seams of coal for extraction.

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