MONTCOAL, W.Va. -- People in this small coal town prayed and hung banners in front of their homes Tuesday as rescuers launched a complicated effort to save four miners missing after a huge underground explosion killed 25 of their colleagues.
Crews were bulldozing an access road so they could drill 1,000 feet into the earth to release gases and make it safe to try to find the four. They were feared dead after the Monday afternoon blast at a mine with a history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane.
Rescuers were being held back by poison gases that accumulated near the blast site, about 1.5 miles from the entrance to Massey Energy Co.'s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine.
They had to create an access road above it before they could begin drilling four shafts to release methane and carbon monoxide. Gov. Joe Manchin said at a news briefing Tuesday that it could be Wednesday night before the first hole is drilled, but rescuers had to try.
"I don't want to give anybody any false hope, but by golly if I'm on that side of the table and that's my father or my brother or my uncle or my cousins, I'm going to have hope," he said.
In an area where coal is king, people anxiously awaited word. Someone hung a "Praying 4 Our Miners" banner outside a home, and at Libby's City Grill in nearby Whitesville, the accident was the talk at every breakfast table. Owner James Scott was grieving his own loss -- his 58-year-old uncle, Deward Scott, was among the dead.
Neither his uncle nor his customers talked much about their work.
"I never heard anyone say anything about the mine, good or bad," James Scott said. "You just don't talk about it."
Some grieving relatives were angry because they learned their loved ones had died from government officials, not from Massey Energy executives.
"They're supposed to be a big company," said Michelle McKinney, who found out from a local official at a nearby school that her 61-year-old father, Benny R. Willingham, died in the blast. He was due to retire in five weeks after 30 years mining, 17 with Massey. "These guys, they took a chance every day to work and make them big. And they couldn't even call us."
Massey CEO Don Blankenship said in an Associated Press interview Tuesday that he has attended briefings with family members, but largely left contact to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration and Massey representatives. He said he was in the room when relatives were notified of the full extent of the tragedy, but the scene was so emotional that he did not interact with them.
Three members of the same family were killed in the blast. Diana Davis said her husband, Timmy Davis, 51, died in the explosion along with his nephews, Josh Napper, 27, and Cory Davis, 20.
The elder Davis' son, Timmy Davis Jr., said his brother, Cody Davis, and an uncle, Tommy Davis, survived the blast. His brother was taking it particularly hard because he and their father were best friends.
Timmy Davis Jr. described his dad as passionate about the mines.
"He loved to work underground," the younger Davis said. "He loved that place."
President Barack Obama offered his condolences at an Easter prayer breakfast in Washington on Tuesday and said the federal government is ready to assist with whatever the state needs. He also asked the audience to pray for those still in the mine.
Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal mine agency, said the situation looked grim for the missing miners.
"All we have left is hope, and we're going to continue to do what we can," he said.
At the quiet entrance to the mine along the Coal River Road on Tuesday, the few people present were all in uniform. State troopers in green and sheriff's deputies in black and gray waved traffic along and stopped motorists and reporters who tried to park on the broad shoulder for photos. Dozens of ambulances that had been parked there had mostly cleared out.
Officials hoped the four were able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for them to live for four days, but rescue teams checked one of two such chambers nearby and it was empty. The buildup of gases prevented teams from reaching other chambers.
A total of 31 miners were in the area during a shift change when the explosion rocked the mine, about 30 miles south of Charleston.
"Before you knew it, it was just like your ears stopped up, you couldn't hear and the next thing you know, it's just like you're just right in the middle of a tornado," miner Steve Smith, who heard the explosion but was able to escape, told ABC's "Good Morning America."
Blankenship said a carbon monoxide warning was the first sign of trouble. Mine crews were checking on the alarm when they discovered an explosion had occurred deep inside the mine.
"I don't know that we know what happened," he said.
Some of those killed may have died in the blast and others when they breathed in the gas-filled air, Stricklin said. Eleven bodies had been recovered and identified, but the other 14 have not. Names weren't released.
Manchin said investigators still don't know what ignited the blast, but methane likely played a part.
The death toll is the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 died in a fire at Emery Mining Corp.'s mine in Orangeville, Utah. If the four missing bring the total to 29, it would be the most killed in a U.S. coal mine since a 1970 explosion killed 38 at Finley Coal Co., in Hyden, Ky.
"There's always danger. There's so many ways you can get hurt, or your life taken," said Gary Williams, a miner and pastor of New Life Assembly, a church near the southern West Virginia mine.
Though the situation looked bleak, Manchin said miracles can happen and pointed to the 2006 Sago Mine explosion that killed 12. Crews found miner Randal McCloy Jr. alive after he was trapped for more than 40 hours in an atmosphere poisoned with carbon monoxide.
In Monday's blast, nine miners were leaving on a vehicle that takes them in and out of the mine's long shaft when a crew ahead of them felt a blast of air and went back to investigate, Stricklin said.
They found seven workers dead. Others were hurt or missing.
Massey Energy, a publicly traded company based in Richmond, Va., has 2.2 billion tons of coal reserves in southern West Virginia, eastern Kentucky, southwest Virginia and Tennessee. It ranks among the nation's top five coal producers and is among the industry's most profitable. It has a spotty safety record.
In the past year, federal inspectors fined the company more than $382,000 for repeated serious violations involving its ventilation plan and equipment at Upper Big Branch.
Methane is one of the great dangers of coal mining, and federal records say the Eagle coal seam releases up to 2 million cubic feet of methane gas into the Upper Big Branch mine every 24 hours.
In mines, giant fans are used to keep the colorless, odorless gas concentrations below certain levels. If concentrations are allowed to build up, the gas can explode with a spark roughly similar to the static charge created by walking across a carpet in winter, as at the Sago mine, also in West Virginia.
The Eagle seam produced 1.2 million tons of coal in 2009, according to the mine safety agency, and has about 200 employees.
Associated Press writers Allen G. Breed, Vicki Smith, Tom Breen and Tim Huber in West Virginia and Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this report.
Updated 6:43 p.m.
MONTCOAL, W.Va. -- Gov. Joe Manchin says it could be Wednesday night before the first hole can be drilled to try to rescue four coal miners in West Virginia.
Manchin said Tuesday at a news conference that he is going to have hope. An underground explosion blamed on methane gas has killed 25 coal miners. It's the worst U.S. mining disaster since 1984.
Crews are bulldozing an access road so they could drill 1,000 feet into the earth to try to find the missing miners that are feared dead.