Search for coal miners hopes to get answers

Tiffany Ellis, left, is comforted by Joy McGaha as they pause at the open casket of Tiffany’s grandfather, Benny Willingham, during his funeral service in Mullens, W.Va., on Friday.

Associated Press

Tiffany Ellis, left, is comforted by Joy McGaha as they pause at the open casket of Tiffany’s grandfather, Benny Willingham, during his funeral service in Mullens, W.Va., on Friday.

MONTCOAL, W.Va. — Grieving relatives began burying victims of the Upper Big Branch coal mine disaster Friday as crews neared a refuge chamber deep underground where they had faint hope that survivors might be awaiting rescue.

It was their fourth try to find the four miners missing since Monday's explosion killed 25 others in the nation's worst underground disaster since at least 1984. During the previous rescue attempts, searchers were forced to withdraw by dangerous gases and the risk of fire or explosion.

Gov. Joe Manchin promised families they should have answers by midnight. "They just want to take their fathers and their husbands and their sons and their uncles, they want to take them home," he said.

Rescuers hoped the miners might have made it to the chamber stocked with food, water and enough oxygen for several days.

Late Friday, officials said their fourth try to check the chamber was progressing better than previous ones and crews were within 2,000 feet of where they needed to be. They said they hoped to start recovering bodies even if no one was in the chamber.

Of the 25 confirmed dead, 18 bodies remained inside the mine.

More than 300 people packed the Mullens Pentecostal Holiness Church for the funeral of Benny Willingham, a 61-year-old miner who was five weeks from retiring when he died.

He was saved 19 years ago this week, said the Rev. Gary Pollard, pastor of the Mullens Family Worship Center, where Willingham was a deacon.

Officials suspect the blast was caused by a buildup of methane gas. President Barack Obama said he asked federal mine safety officials to give him a report on the disaster next week, and the House and Senate said they would hold hearings.

In the days since the explosion, details have emerged about a long list of safety violations at the mine. The owner, Massey Energy Co., has been repeatedly cited and fined for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up. CEO Don Blankenship has strongly defended the company's record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety.

Search for coal miners hopes to get answers 04/10/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 10, 2010 12:24am]

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