MONTCOAL, W.Va. — Rescue teams were trying to locate at least 19 trapped miners in a large underground coal mine where an explosion killed seven workers on Monday, the coal company and mine safety officials said.
Nine rescue crews usually made up of six members each were at the mine that covers several square miles, but it was not clear if they had headed underground yet to pull people out, said federal Mine Safety and Health Administration spokeswoman Amy Louviere.
State mining director Ron Wooten said the blast that happened around 3 p.m. at Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in Raleigh County, about 30 miles south of Charleston. The company did not provide details on the extent of the damage or if other miners had made it out on their own.
“We want to assure the families of all the miners we are taking every action possible to locate and rescue those still missing,” said Massey CEO Don Blankenship, who confirmed the number of dead and missing in a statement.
He said the names would not be released until next-of-kin were notified.
One injured miner is in intensive care at Charleston Area Medical Center, spokeswoman Elizabeth Pellegrin said.
“We are preparing for other patients,” she said.
The mine is operated by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co. It has caches of extra oxygen along emergency escape routes and airtight chambers designed to provide enough air to keep miners alive for four days if they can’t make their way out, according to Randy Harris, an engineering consultant who oversees installation of high-tech gear.
Federal records show three miners have died on the job at Upper Big Branch since 1998.
The mine produced 1.2 million tons of coal in 2009, according to the mine safety agency, and has about 200 employees, most of whom work underground. They would not have all been working the same shift. The mine has two production shifts and one maintenance shift and extracts coal from the 72-inch Eagle coalbed, a thick seam for the region in 2010.
Upper Big Branch extracts the bulk of its coal using a machine called a longwall miner that uses a cutting head to move back and forth across the working face somewhat like a 1,000-foot-long deli slicer.
Firefighters in nearby Whitesville asked the town’s First Baptist Church to keep its doors open in case family members of miners come looking for information, Pastor Brian Kelly said. No family members had arrived by early Monday evening. Kelly said he heard several helicopters flying overhead but didn’t know if they were news crews or medical crews.
Gov. Joe Manchin was out of town, but working to get back, according to his office. Chief of Staff Jim Spears was headed to the mine.
At the mine, a worker was electrocuted while repairing equipment in 2003. An equipment operator died when a chunk of rock fell on him from the roof in 2001. Another worker was crushed in a roof collapse in 1998.
Massey Energy is a publicly traded company based in Richmond, Va., that has 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee, according to the company’s Web site.
Massey ranks among the nation’s top five coal producers and is among the industry’s most profitable. It has a spotty safety record.
The federal mine safety administration fined Massey a then-record $1.5 million for 25 violations that inspectors concluded contributed to the deaths of two miners trapped in a fire in January 2006. The company later settled a lawsuit naming it, several subsidiaries and Chief Executive Don Blankenship as defendants. Aracoma Coal Co. later paid $2.5 million in fines after the company pleaded guilty to 10 criminal charges in the fire.
The United Mine Workers labor union said it has personnel nearby and would help non-union Massey if the company asks. The UMW said it also is ready to help families of workers at the mine. Massey is virulently non-union and CEO Blankenship’s television set with a UMW fired bullet in it still sits in his office.
In 2006, 12 miners died in a methane explosion at the Sago Mine in West Virginia. Six were killed in the collapse of the Crandall Canyon mine in Utah in 2007.
West Virginia requires all underground mines to have wireless communications and tracking systems designed to survive explosions and other disasters. While not all mines in West Virginia comply with federal standards, all have systems that meet state requirements, engineering consultant Harris said.
Last year, the number of miners killed on the job in the U.S. fell for a second straight year to 34, the fewest since officials began keeping records nearly a century ago. That was down from the previous low of 52 in 2008.
U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration documents show 18 of the deaths occurred in coal mines, down from 29 in 2008; and 16 were in gold, copper and other types of mines, down from 22 in 2008.
The deadliest year in recorded U.S. coal mining history was 1907, when 3,242 deaths were reported. That year, the nation’s deadliest mine explosion killed 358 people near Monongah, W.Va.