Coal Mine Disaster Claims at Least 25 Miners' Lives

Big Branch Coal Mine Blast in West Virginia
Big Branch Coal Mine Blast in West Virginia

Officials don't yet know what led to an massive methane gas explosion at a Massey Energy (MEE) mine in West Virginia that has killed 25 miners and left four others missing. However, it's already known to be the worst mining disaster in the U.S. in more than two decades.

The explosion happened Monday afternoon at about 3 p.m. Eastern Time at the coal company's Big Branch Mine in Whitesville, about 30 miles south of Charleston, the state capital.

Efforts to rescue four trapped miners were suspended so that bore holes could be drilled to allow toxic gases to vent from the sprawling mine, state and federal safety officials said. "Rescue efforts will resume as soon as conditions allow," the company said in a statement posted Tuesday on its website.

"Situation Does Look Dire"

"All we have left is hope, and we're going to continue to do what we can," Kevin Stricklin, an administrator for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said at a news conference. "But I'm just trying to be honest with everybody and say that the situation does look dire."

Though the blast's cause isn't known, the operation run by Massey subsidiary Performance Coal Co. has a history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane gas, the Associated Press reported, quoting safety officials.

"The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration will investigate this tragedy and take action," U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement Tuesday. "Miners should never have to sacrifice their lives for their livelihood."

West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin told reporters the four trapped miners are all related. One man, a miner himself who worked the shift before the disaster, lost a son, a brother and a nephew in the disaster, Manchin said at a briefing early Tuesday morning.

Shares of Massey were down nearly 6% in pre-market trading on Wall Street. Jefferies & Co. maintained its buy rating on the stock. In light of Massey's tragedy, analyst Michael Dudas expects public and government scrutiny to intensify for the industry -- and for Massey in particular.