TALLMANSVILLE — Two rescue teams were working underground Monday evening, trying to reach 13 miners trapped when a massive explosion rocked an Upshur County coal mine early Monday morning.
The miners were believed to be about 10,000 feet from the entrance of the Sago Mine and 260 feet underground.
There was no way of knowing if they were dead or alive, because the explosion cut off all communication with the surface.
Rescuers were about 4,800 feet into the mine late Monday, the company said, or about halfway to the trapped miners.
Rescuers were forced to use hand tools and walk through the mine because any machinery could spark another explosion.
A third team began drilling a hole Monday evening to where the miners are supposed to have been working. They hope to test the air quality through the air shaft and try to drop a listening device into the mine, said Gene Kitts, ICG vice president of mining services.
Drilling started about at 10:30 p.m. and was expected to take between four and six hours.
The former Anker West Virginia Mining Co. mine, which has a history of safety violations, was acquired two months ago by International Coal Group. It is several miles south of Buckhannon in the hamlet of Sago along the Buckhannon River.
The explosion took place at approximately 6:30 a.m., according to company officials. The mine had been closed for almost two days and reopened a half-hour before the explosion.
Five men were able to escape the blast. They had entered the mine several minutes after the crew that became trapped.
Four miners re-entered the mine shortly after the explosion and reached 9,000 feet, where the air was too contaminated for them to continue, Kitts said. The would-be rescuers did not encounter any roof falls or significant rubble, he said.
At least five rescue teams were at the scene by Monday evening. At first they could not enter the mine because of carbon monoxide, but by 6 p.m. the air quality had improved and rescue teams began to work, Kitts said.
The missing miners carried enough oxygen to last about one hour. The mine’s fans were working, but no one knows if fresh air was making it to the trapped miners. They are trained to barricade themselves in case of such an explosion.
More than 200 family members and friends stood vigil at Sago Baptist Church, a half-mile from the mine site. Some watched the mine entrance from the church’s tiny porch, while others lined up on the Buckhannon River road that separated them from the mine.
They struggled to maintain hope amid reports of the ferocious explosion.
“I’m going to stay here until he comes out, one way another,” said Judy Shackelford of Arthurdale. She said her brother, Terry Helms of Newburg, was trapped in the mine. Helms was a fire boss and worked in the mines all his life, she said.
“If he’s in there, I know he’s keeping everyone’s spirits up,” said his niece Michelle Mowser of Cheat Lake. “He’s never going to work there again. The money’s good, but it’s not worth it.”
Several miners with blackened faces stood with shell-shocked expressions across from the mine Monday afternoon. They talked to fellow miners and family members but were told by company officials not to speak with the media.
Once an hour, family members filed into the church for an update from company officials. Their worries and frustrations were obvious during an update early Monday afternoon. They asked if air was getting to their loved ones and if the rescue teams had started their work.
In response, company Vice President Roger Nicholson said rescue efforts had not started yet because a backup crew hadn’t arrived.
“Even if they were here, the gases being exhausted would prevent them from going onward,” he said. The crowd gasped.
“Oh, dear God!” one woman cried.
To see transcripts of the Sago mine interviews, please visit http://www.wvgazette.com/static/sago/