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Saturday, April 10, 2010

West Virginia's Coal Mining Tragedy Ends With 4 More Deaths

4 Missing West Virginia Miners Found Dead

Days of rescue efforts came to a grim end after crews found the bodies of four miners who had been missing since an explosion almost a week ago in a West Virginia mine, authorities said early Saturday.

"We did not receive the miracle we prayed for," said West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin. "This journey has ended and now the healing will start."

Authorities first notified the families of the four miners about their fate before revealing it to the media.

The death toll from Monday's blast at the Upper Big Branch mine now stands at 29, making it the worst mining disaster in the United States in nearly four decades.

On Friday, crews had reached a refuge chamber that had not been used, but the bad air forced them to evacuate before they reached the second chamber.

The airtight chambers were stocked with enough food, water and air to keep 15 miners alive for four days, but Manchin said none of the chambers had been deployed.

Rescue efforts have now turned to the difficult task of recovery, said Kevin Stricklin, of the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

Of the 29 dead, the bodies of 22 still remain inside the mine. Stricklin said most of them will have to be hand-carried out because of the lack of equipment.

"It's hard to turn a rescue into a recovery with the same group of people," he said.

As days of rescue came to an end, funerals were held Friday for some of the seven dead whose bodies have been removed from the mine.

At the funeral for Benny Willingham, the Rev. Gary Pollard said the 61-year-old miner had three loves in life: God, his family and his job. "He loved God so much that every day was a holiday, every meal was a buffet," Pollard said at Mullens Pentecostal Holiness Church in Mullens.

Willingham, who was married for 33 years, was devoted to his church, Pollard said, and had been a Christian for 19 years. And though Willingham had been set to retire soon, Pollard said he didn't know whether retirement would have suited him: He loved the work.

Three other funerals were held Friday and one is set for Saturday.

The cause of Monday's blast is unknown, and state and federal officials have pledged a full investigation.

The explosion has prompted renewed questions about mine safety. Obama said Friday that "it's clear more needs to be done" to improve mine safety.

He will meet next week with Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis and a Mine Safety and Health Administration official to hear their initial assessment of the cause of the blast and their recommendations on steps the federal government should take to improve safety.

Richmond, Virginia-based Massey Energy Co., which owns the mine, said in a statement released Friday that it will conduct "extensive" reviews of the mine accident "to ensure that a similar incident doesn't happen again."

It said the mine has had less than one violation per day in inspections by the Mine Safety and Health Administration and added that that rate is "consistent with national averages."

"Most of the citations issued by MSHA to [Upper Big Branch] in the last year were resolved on the same day they were issued," it said. "The safety of our members has been and will continue to be our top priority every day."

One of the unaccounted-for miners and 18 of the dead were working in an area where long wall cutting was taking place. The technique uses a large grinder to extract the coal and creates large amounts of coal dust and methane, both of which are explosive.

Manchin said that even though it's not clear what caused the explosion, there needs to be a focus on better ventilation and sensors to alert mine personnel when gas levels become dangerous.

"There was no way to protect them against this," he said. "You just have to prevent it and make sure it doesn't happen again."

The West Virginia blast was the worst mining disaster since 1972 when 91 miners were killed in a fire at the Sunshine Mine in Kellogg, Idaho.

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Sources: CNN, Google Maps

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