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Rescuers search deep for missing W.Va. miners

Associated Press
Published January 21, 2006

MELVILLE, W.Va. - Rescuers spread out to search a smoky labyrinth for two coal miners Friday after a conveyor belt caught fire deep underground in the second major mining accident in West Virginia in less than three weeks.

Close to a day after the fire broke out, safety crews had yet to make contact with the men, said Doug Conaway, director of the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training. Their odds of survival "are a little bit long," West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said.

It was unclear where in the mine the men were. They were each equipped with a breathing apparatus that typically produces about an hour's worth of air.

The fire broke out Thursday night at the Aracoma No. 1 mine. Rescuers were hampered by heavy smoke that cut visibility to 2 to 3 feet. After the blaze was brought somewhat under control Friday, rescuers spread out to search four tunnels, each about 4 miles long. The mine extends as much as 900 feet below ground.

"I don't think we fully know the obstacles we're facing. How much smoke is there? What are the difficulties of traversing through there?" Conaway said.

David Roberts, co-manager of Refab Co., a mining machinery repair company, said a friend on the mine rescue team told him it was very hot and smoky inside the shafts.

"He said it was extremely hot - 350 to 400 degrees," he said.

Twenty-one miners were in the southwestern West Virginia mine Thursday when a carbon monoxide monitor about 10,000 feet from the entrance set off an alarm. Nineteen of the miners escaped.

Jesse Cole of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration said listening equipment would be set up to try to locate the missing men. However, the terrain was so rough that the equipment had not yet been used by late Friday afternoon.

The governor was with the miners' families, who along with friends and co-workers gathered at Brightstar Freewill Baptist Church to wait for news.

Earlier this month, Manchin joined another group of miners and relatives of those trapped after an explosion at the International Coal Group's Sago Mine, on the northern side of the state. Twelve miners died in the disaster. The sole survivor, Randal McCloy Jr., 26, remained hospitalized in a light coma Friday.

"Sago is very fresh in everybody's mind, but this is a different scenario," Manchin said.

Katharine W. Kenny, spokeswoman for Massey Energy, owner of mine operator Aracoma Coal, said the company was "very optimistic."

Air samples from a hole near the fire showed elevated levels of carbon monoxide, although not as severe as the levels at the Sago Mine. At one point, rescue teams were in the mine without breathing gear, Conaway said.

[Last modified January 21, 2006, 01:34:14]

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