The fatality count didn’t change on Tuesday as crews continued searching for four miners. But the officials have not identified the bodies of fourteen, so that leaves eighteen families praying that their loved one is alive and will be rescued.
In an evening press briefing, Gov. Joe Manchin painted the scene.
“The scenario you have, if you can put yourselves in as a family member,” he said. “We have 18 miners in there. Fourteen we know have perished. Four were unknown. Nobody knows, so everybody’s going to cling on to that hope of a miracle.”
The rescue mission was temporarily suspended after the mine began to fill up with methane gas, endangering the lives of rescue workers. Now, workers are drilling bore holes into the mine. This will ventilate the gas, and make it safer for crews to re-enter the mine.
Massey Energy Chief Operating Officer Chris Adkins described the drilling process.
“You have to get 1100 feet down,” he said. “It isn’t as simple as sitting up on top of a mountain and penetrating 1100 feet and hitting where you want to hit. You have to hit within a 20 foot area so we’ve chosen to put two drills side by side.
“Those drills will drill down. If one misses its mark, hopefully the other one will hit the mark. The problem that we’re going to encounter is that we have to go through several seams that have already been mined out. So as you go through those seams, you can imagine a pencil coming down. When it gets into a void that’s already been mined, you have an opportunity to have deviation in that drill.”
Besides being complicated, it’s also a lengthy process. Drilling began Tuesday afternoon, and if all goes well officials say they hope to break into the mine by midday Wednesday.
MSHA Chief of Coal Mine Safety Kevin Stricklin says his agency isn’t sure yet what caused the explosion, and they won’t know until they begin to investigate.
“It would just be preliminary of us to say it’s a methane explosion at this point,” Stricklin said. “We’ll do an investigation and determine whether it’s methane, coal dust, whatever. But as I mentioned earlier, any explosion is preventable.”
Another topic that’s waiting for a future investigation is whether inspectors knew about unsafe conditions at the mine. MSHA has issued more than 120 safety violations at Upper Big Branch so far this year. MSHA Chief Joe Main says right now, the focus is on reaching the missing miners.
“It’s clear that we’re focused on one mission right now and that is the completion of the rescue efforts at the mine,” Main said. “We have all the folks who are involved putting everything into it as we can and moving as expeditiously as we can. But until we get this mission complete, our basic single focus is going to be on completion of the rescue efforts at the mine.”
Officials say they hope the miners made it to a safety chamber—which is equipped with oxygen.