January 3, 2006

Rescuers dig to reach 13 West Virginia miners

By Jonathan Barnes

TALLMANSVILLE, West Virginia (Reuters) - Two rescue teams
were digging by hand on Tuesday to try to reach 13 miners
trapped for more than 21 hours inside a West Virginia coal mine
after an explosion.

There has been no communication with the miners trapped
inside the Sago mine in central West Virginia, about 100 miles

from Charleston, since the blast occurred early on Monday.
Mine officials declined to speculate on their condition.

Rescuers were expected to begin drilling into the chamber
where the miners were thought to be to test oxygen levels and
drop a microphone down to listen for signs of life.

Rescue efforts to reach the men -- thought to be about 250
feet below ground and almost 2 miles into the mine -- had been
slowed by high gas concentrations outside the mine. Ventilation
fans later dissipated the unidentified gas.

One rescue team had made it around three quarters of the
way into the shaft by 1:18 a.m. (0618 GMT) on Tuesday, said
Roger Nicholson, general counsel for International Coal Group
Inc., which owns the mine.

Officials said there were 14 five-member rescue teams on
hand to ensure the rescue effort continued without a break.
West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin said the effort was expected to
last through the night.

"It's a very slow, careful process," company Senior Vice
President Gene Kitts said. He said the rescue teams were "still
proceeding on foot and working by hand."


Kitts told a news conference early on Tuesday that nine of
the 13 trapped miners had more than 30 years' mining experience
and the average for the group was 23 years.

"This is not a rookie crew underground," he said. "So we're
just trusting that their training and their mining instincts
have kicked in immediately and they've taken every step
possible to put themselves out of harm's way."

Officials said each of the trapped miners was equipped with
a mask and small oxygen tank holding one hour of oxygen.

Hundreds of family and friends gathered at a nearby Baptist
church where the Red Cross had set up operations.

Loretta Abel said her fiance was among the trapped miners.
"He was going to call in sick today but he wanted to make more
money for the holidays," she said in a telephone interview.

The explosion happened when the mine was reopening after
being closed for the holidays, according to Manchin's
spokeswoman, Lara Ramsburg.

Ramsburg said two cars had been entering the mine and the
second car, carrying six miners, made it out after feeling the
effects of the explosion.

The six miners tried to re-enter the mine to rescue their
fellow workers but could not reach them, she said.

Kitts said the area where the explosion occurred had been
inspected an hour before the incident and found safe.

"We're not going to speculate what caused the explosion,"
he said, adding lightning had not been ruled out.

Since October, the U.S. Mine Safety and Health
Administration has issued 50 citations to Sago mine, some as
recently as December 21, including citations for accumulation
of combustible materials such as coal dust and loose coal.

The Sago mine produces about 800,000 tons of coal annually
and employs about 130 people.

(Additional reporting by Chriss Swaney in Pittsburgh and
Doina Chiacu in Washington)