MONTCOAL, W.Va. — Rescuers held out slim hope Tuesday that four missing coal miners might have survived when a mine repeatedly cited for improperly venting methane gas exploded, killing 25 people in the country's deadliest underground disaster in a quarter-century.
A day after the blast in southern West Virginia, desperate rescuers began boring into the mine in hopes of releasing poisonous gases so crews could go in search of the men. But Gov. Joe Manchin said it could be midday today before much progress is made.
"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.
The missing miners might have been able to reach airtight chambers stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for four days. But rescue teams checked one of two chambers nearby, and it was empty. The buildup of gases prevented them from reaching the second chamber. Officials said they were 90 percent sure of the miners' location.
On Tuesday, bulldozers carved an access road to make way for drilling crews, who planned to dig four shafts to vent methane, a highly combustible gas that accumulates naturally in coal mines, and carbon monoxide from the blast site about 1,000Â feet beneath the surface.
Crews began drilling two side-by-side holes that start at 12 inches in diameter and narrow to 6Â inches. .
In an area where coal is king, people anxiously awaited word on the missing miners. One resident hung a "Praying 4 Our Miners" banner outside a home. 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 of Montcoal, 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."
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., described his father as passionate about the outdoors and the mines. "He loved to work underground," the younger Davis said. "He loved that place." Two other family members survived the blast, he said.
On Tuesday night, about 50Â mourners packed the creaky pews of St. Joseph Catholic Church, a modest building on a lonely rural road a few miles from the mine. As a flute played, and congregants prayed for the four missing miners, they also did their best to belt out hymns. Some wore their Sunday best while others wandered in wearing T-shirts, jeans and tattered baseball caps.
During pauses, some leaned over and consoled each other.
"It's such a terrible time for West Virginia, but it's so important to ask for God's help," said Bishop Michael J. Bransfield. "It demands our cares and it demands our prayers."
At the time of the explosion, 61Â miners were in 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.
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, said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The chief executive of Massey Energy, Don Blankenship, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that a carbon monoxide warning indicated trouble. Mine crews were checking on the alarm when they discovered an explosion had occurred. "I don't know that we know what happened," he said.
Some may have been killed by the blast and others when they inhaled the toxic gases, Stricklin said.
He described how the rescue teams gradually descended through a long, sloping shaft where the miners were operating a huge machine that carves coal from the walls. He said the teams increasingly encountered debris from the mine's ventilation system and other materials.
Federal officials decided to call off the rescue after high methane gas readings in the far reaches of the mine. "The decision was that you can't risk 40 rescue workers," Blankenship said.
Stricklin said after the mine is safe to enter, rescue teams will try to reach a long section about 20 feet wide with barely enough room to stand. Besides the dark, the searchers must also navigate debris from structures shattered by the explosion, and sections of the track that were "wrapped like a pretzel" from the blast.
"There's so much dirt and dust and everything is so dark that it's very easy, as hard as it may seem to any of us outside in this room, to walk by a body," Stricklin said.
Seven bodies have been recovered and identified. The names of the remaining miners were not released, but the AP was able to identify six through family members.
Two injured miners were being treated at hospitals. Their names were not released either.