January 3, 2006

Rescue continues for trapped miners

By Jonathan Barnes

TALLMANSVILLE, West Virginia (Reuters) - Rescuers planned
to deploy a robot to help in the desperate search on Tuesday
for 13 miners trapped for almost 24 hours deep inside a West
Virginia coal mine following an explosion.

There had still been no communication with the miners
trapped inside the Sago mine in central West Virginia since the
blast occurred about 6:30 a.m. (1130 GMT) on Monday.

Rescue teams had advanced almost 9,200 feet -- most of the
distance -- toward where the miners are believed to be trapped,
about 250 feet below ground and almost 2 miles into the mine.

But officials at International Coal Group Inc., which owns
the mine, said rescue crews would soon be pulled out as a
safety precaution just before a drilling operation finished
punching a 6 1/4-inch hole into the mine to test the air
quality where the trapped miners are believed to be.

Afterward, a robot equipped with a camera and sensors to
monitor air conditions would be sent into the shaft to ensure
it was safe for the crews to push on beyond 9,200 feet.
Officials said the air quality up to that point was still

"The main reason to push forward with the robot and to push
forward with the drill hole is essentially to determine what
lies ahead for the rescue teams," International Coal CEO Ben
Hatfield told a news conference on Tuesday morning. "Once they
know what's out front of them they can move much quicker."

"We will push forward as quickly as we can as long as there
is a shred of hope that we can get our people out safely,"
Hatfield said.

"This is a very dangerous process," he cautioned. "As much
as we desperately want to get to our people and get them out
safely, we can't put more people at risk in the process. So we
have to move forward with an abundance of caution."

Asked if he had anything to say to television viewers
following the rescue process, Hatfield said, "Pray."


Officials declined to speculate what caused the explosion,
although they did not rule out a lightning strike. Hatfield
said there was evidence of a blast but no indications of major
damage to the mine shaft.

The incident came almost several years after nine
Pennsylvania coal miners were rescued in 2002 following a
77-hour ordeal in a flooded mine shaft 240 feet underground.

Thirteen people were killed in a December 2001 coal mining
explosion in Brookwood, Alabama. In 1968, an explosion at a
Farmington, west Virginia, mine, caused 78 deaths.

The company's senior vice president, Gene Kitts, said
earlier that nine of the 13 trapped miners had more than 30
years' mining experience and the average for the group was 23

"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."

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, said Lara Ramsburg, spokeswoman
for West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin.

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.

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 Chris Swaney in Pittsburgh and
Doina Chiacu in Washington)