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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

One body found at West Virginia mine

One body found at West Virginia mine

Rescue crew searching for 12 others trapped after explosion

Tuesday, January 3, 2006; Posted: 10:08 p.m. EST (03:08 GMT)
Hilda Bankhead waits for news about her trapped nephew in Tallmansville, West Virginia, on Tuesday.

West Virginia
Health and Safety at Work
Disasters (General)

TALLMANSVILLE, West Virginia (CNN) -- The body of one of 13 miners trapped underground for more than 36 hours was found Tuesday night, a mine official said.

The body has not been identified, and no other bodies have been found, said Ben Hatfield, the CEO of International Coal Group, which owns the Sago Mine.

Informing families about the body was a "nightmare," he said, but the search continues for the 12 remaining miners.

Red Cross volunteer Tamila Swiger said she was in a nearby church when the missing miners' families were told about the body.

"Everyone in the church is just devastated," she said, "breaking down" and suffering panic attacks.

Rachel Day, the daughter of Sago Baptist Church's pastor, said families are "still holding on to that last thread of hope."

Hatfield told reporters late Tuesday that rescue crews found the body in the mine shaft about 11,250 feet from the main entrance.

The vehicle used by the miners was found about 700 feet beyond the body. It was not seriously damaged by the explosion, and the 12 miners appeared to have exited it under their own power, he said.

"That's a very good thing," he said. "That's yet another glimmer of hope, but it raises a lot of questions as to where the employees might have gone."

He said the miners were each equipped with an hour's worth of oxygen, which should have "gotten them to the outside."

Hatfield said at a press conference shortly after 9 p.m. that rescue crews had gone as far into the mine as they could with their "self-breathing apparatus" and would take a "two to four-hour hiatus while we re-establish ventilation."

The miners were trapped early Monday after an explosion of unknown origin. They're believed to be about 260 feet below the surface at the end of an angled shaft about 2 miles long. (Interactive: Long path to accident site)

There has been no contact with the miners since Monday's blast.

'We need a miracle'

At a press conference Tuesday afternoon, Hatfield said, "With each hour that passes, the likelihood of a successful outcome diminishes."

"We are clearly in a situation where we need a miracle," he said. "But miracles happen."

Hatfield said the rescue effort would conclude "only when all hope is lost."

Teams were also digging two six-inch holes into the coal mine, after completing an initial hole earlier in the day. They stopped about 20 feet short of reaching the mine to assure the safety of searchers underground, Hatfield said.

An air monitor dropped into the first hole, drilled 260 feet down into the mine, found carbon monoxide levels too high to support life, but officials said the miners could be in another area of the mine.

A robot that rescuers sent into the mine's entry tunnel ran into mud and other debris, slowing its progress. (Watch mine official's update in his own words -- 14:08)

Earlier Tuesday, Hatfield told reporters that "rescue teams are moving forward at an accelerated pace" and were "performing better than the robot was."

"We believe we were being overly conservative early on," he said.

Hatfield said the carbon monoxide level far exceeds regulatory limits for breathable air. "Therefore we are very discouraged by the results of this test."

Hatfield also said rescuers on the surface pounded on the drill that bored the first hole into the mine. It was placed in an area where the miners were thought to be at the time of the blast. There was no response.

Views from a camera dropped through the drill hole were inconclusive, Hatfield said.

"No barricades or survivors were seen, but there was also no evidence of substantial explosion damage," Hatfield said.

Darker mood

Near the mine, the mood of hundreds of family members gathered Tuesday morning at the Sago Baptist Church darkened after officials briefed them. (Watch where relatives are waiting and weeping -- 1:05)

Nick Helms, son of trapped miner Terry Helms, was trying to hold his emotions in check as he spoke to CNN late Tuesday.

"I just want to see my dad again," he said. "I'm trying to keep it together as best I can." (On the Scene)

Anna McCloy, wife of missing 27-year-old miner Randy McCloy, said her husband had talked about changing careers.

"He was only working to support me and the kids," she said.

Manchin -- whose uncle was killed in a mining accident in 1968 -- expressed confidence in the rescue.

"We have all the equipment, we have all the personnel. We're doing all that we can with the best that we have in the country," he said.

Manchin said some of the drilling equipment being used Tuesday was also used in the July 2002 rescue of nine miners in Somerset, Pennsylvania. Those miners were pulled to safety after being trapped for 77 hours in a flooded mine. (Full story)

In Washington, President Bush said he had spoken with Manchin and assured him that the "federal government will help the folks in West Virginia any way we can."

"May God bless those who are trapped below the earth, and may God bless those who are concerned about those trapped," Bush said at the White House.

Mining deaths on the decline

Manchin said 2005 was the safest year in the state's history of mining.

According to the U.S. Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration, 242 miners died nationally in mining accidents in 1978; in 2003, 55 miners died in mining accidents.

Fourteen miners were killed underground in 2004, the last year for which figures were available. (Watch how mining deaths have fallen -- 1:25)

The International Coal Group was formed in 2004, when business entrepreneur Wilbur Ross Jr. led a group that bought many of the assets of Horizon Natural Resources in a bankruptcy auction.

Last year, ICG bought Anker, which previously owned Sago. The company has mining operations in West Virginia, Kentucky and Maryland and owned or controlled approximately 707 million tons of coal as of January 1, 2005.

The Sago Mine was cited 208 times over alleged safety violations in 2005, up from 68 citations the year before, The Associated Press reported.

Federal regulators' allegations against the Sago Mine included failure to dilute coal dust, which can lead to explosions, and failure to properly operate and maintain machinery, according to the AP report. (Full story)

CNN's Brian Todd contributed to this report.

Copyright 2006 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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