Rescue crews began working their way by rail car and on foot through a West Virginia coal mine early Thursday in search of four miners missing since a blast killed 25 colleagues in the worst U.S. mining disaster in more than two decades.
Gov. Joe Manchin said crews entered the Upper Big Branch mine, about 30 miles south of Charleston, at 4:55 a.m. EDT and hoped to reach the area where they might find the missing miners sometime before noon.
"They are advancing," Manchin told an early morning news briefing. "They'll move as rapidly as they possibly can."
Rescuers had to wait to enter the mine until crews drilled holes deep into the earth to ventilate lethal carbon monoxide, highly explosive hydrogen, as well as methane gas, which has been blamed for the explosion. The air quality was deemed safe enough for four teams of eight members each to go on what officials were still calling a rescue mission.
Officials and townsfolk alike admitted they didn't expect to find any of the four missing miners alive more than two days after the massive explosion. Poisonous gases have filled the underground tunnels since Monday afternoon's blast
But officials were holding out hope that the miners had somehow survived the explosion by escaping into airtight chambers with enough food, water and air to survive for up to four days.
Seven bodies had been brought out Monday and authorities want to recover 18 bodies of the known dead from the mine owned by Massey Energy Co., which has been cited for numerous safety violations.
The federal Mine Safety and Health Administration has appointed a team of investigators to look into the blast, which officials said may have been caused by a buildup of methane.
Massey has been repeatedly cited for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up, including two large fines assessed in January when federal inspectors found dirty air flowing into an escapeway where fresh air should be, and an emergency air system flowing in the wrong direction. Miners were so concerned about the conditions that several told their congressman they were afraid to go back into the mine.
Even on the day of the blast, MSHA cited the mine with two safety violations -- one involving inadequate maps of escape routes, the other concerning an improper splice of electrical cable. However, Kevin Stricklin from MSHA said those violations had nothing to do with the blast.
Massey CEO Don Blankenship has strongly defended the company's record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety.
Rescue team members planned to carry 30 pounds of gear including breathing devices to protect them from bad air.
The rescue teams needed to trek some five miles from the mine's entrance to the area the men might be. Underground rail cars called mantrips would take them as far as possible, but the rest would be on foot. Manchin said they had gone as far as they could before wrecked rails meant they had to walk the remaining "couple of miles" to an area where they hoped to find the miners.
"Families are very hopeful and very prayerful ... That today we can put a finality to this today," Manchin said.
The effect of so many sudden deaths in the area's small coal-reliant communities started showing with obituaries for the victims appearing in local newspapers. The first five funerals were scheduled for Friday and Saturday.
Miner William "Bob" Griffith's family was preparing for the worst. Griffith went to work Monday and never came home, said his brother, James Griffith, who also works at the mine. William Griffith's brother-in-law, Carl Acord, died in the explosion.
"In my honest opinion, if anyone else survives it, I will be surprised," James Griffith said.
Doug Griffith, another of William Griffith's brothers and also a miner, sat down with his family after getting a briefing on the rescue effort, said his wife, Cindi.
"He just said we really need to prepare for the worst," she said. "They don't feel like there's any hope."
The mine produced more than 1.2 million tons of coal last year and uses the lowest-cost underground mining method, making it more profitable. It produces metallurgical coal that is used to make steel and sells for up to $200 a ton -- more than double the price for the type of coal used by power plants.
The confirmed death toll of 25 was the highest in a U.S. mine since 1984, when 27 people died in a fire at a mine in Orangeville, Utah. If the four missing bring the total to 29, it will be the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since a 1970 explosion killed 38 in Hyden, Ky.
The explosion and its aftermath have gripped communities that rely on the income the mines provide in the heart of coal country.
Anna West, 34, joined about 300 people, many wearing the reflective orange stripes of the miners they love, to walk silently through the small town of Whitesville in a candlelight vigil for both the dead and missing.
She was with her three young children, thinking of their father, Claude West Jr., who has been a miner for eight years, the last several at the Kanawha Eagle mine.
"It could have just as well been my husband," she said. "My father was a miner, his father was a miner.
"I already told my son that I don't want him to be a miner."
Associated Press Writers Alan Breed, Greg Bluestein, Vicki Smith, Tom Breen, Tim Huber and John Raby and videojournalist Mark Carlson in West Virginia; Mitch Weiss and Mike Baker in North Carolina; Ray Henry in Atlanta; and Sam Hananel in Washington contributed to this report.