Deadly W.Va. Coal Mine Blast Worst Since 1984

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WASHINGTON -- Family and friends in a small West Virginia community were in mourning Tuesday after a massive explosion at a local coal mine claimed the lives of more than two dozen people.

Four miners remain missing after the country's worst mine disaster since 1984.

Epic Mining Tragedy

At 3 p.m. Monday afternoon, right as mine crews were changing shifts, an explosion roared through Massey Energy Co.'s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine located about 30 miles south of Charleston, W. Va.

"We were on our way to go out to the other side of the mountain," miner Steve Smith recalled. "We got caught up almost like a tornado. It stopped us dead. We couldn't go any farther because there was so much air coming towards us."

Former miner Homer Hickam spoke with CBN News about the industry and job conditions.  Click play for his comments.

Twenty-five of the 29 workers in the area at the time of the blast have been confirmed dead. Some are believed to have died in the explosion and others lost their lives after inhaling deadly gases.

Early Tuesday morning, the high levels of methane forced rescue teams to temporarily call off their search for the four missing miners.

"My immediate reaction was I just pray to the good lord that they were all able to get to the safety zones and have the oxygen they needed and everything," Gov. Joe Manchin, D-W. Va., said.

Family members rushed to the mine as soon as they got word of the disaster.

"They asked me if Kevin was working the evening or day. That's all they said. When I told him 'evening,' they told me there'd been an explosion," said Jenny Waycaster, whose son works at the mine.

"We just really came to pray," Grace Lafferty said. "Our pastor works at this mine."

A History of Safety Problems

Massey Energy Co. is the sixth largest mining company in the country with a record of safety violations.

Last year, it paid out $4.2 million in criminal and civil fines after two people died in a fire at one of its mines in 2006. It was the largest financial settlement in the history of the industry.

While mining is a dangerous job, it's also an important business.

The U.S. has the largest known coal reserves in the world, which supply about half of all the country's electricity and provides 23 percent of the nation's energy.

Monday's accident highlights the risks taken by miners and the rescuers sent in after them.

"As catastrophic as this was, if another explosion had happened and we'd lost another 50 rescuers, it would have been something just unfathomable," said Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Congressman Calls for Probe

Meanwhile, Congressman Nick Rahall, D-W. Va., has vowed a there would be a thorough probe into Monday's tragedy.

"We will seek answers about the cause of this disaster," Rahall said in statement released Tuesday. "We will look for inadequacies in the law and enforcement practices, and I will work to fix any we find."

"We will scrutinize the health and safety violations at this mine to see whether the law was circumvented and miners precious lives were willfully put at risk, and there will be accountability," the statement read.

Earlier this month, an assistant secretary of labor scheduled a public hearing on mine emergency preparedness and response to work on improving mine safety. This latest incident adds a sad new chapter on the lessons they will build on to make mining safer.

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