Crews re-enter W. Va. mine to recover 9 bodies

Associatedpress and Associatedpress

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Searchers went back inside a wrecked West Virginia coal mine Monday to pull out more bodies as federal investigators prepared to launch their probe of the explosion that killed 29 men in the worst U.S. coal mining disaster since 1970.

While some of the dead have been laid to rest, nine bodies remained in Massey Energy Co.’s Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal. Efforts to recover them were stalled when high levels of volatile methane gas forced crews out of the mine Sunday.

After the tunnels were ventilated, one team entered around midnight Sunday and another went in about 5 a.m. Monday, state mine office spokeswoman Jama Jarrett said.

A team of federal investigators is expected to arrive Monday to start trying to figure out what caused the explosion.

Richmond, Va.-based Massey has been under scrutiny for a string of safety violations at the mine, though CEO Don Blankenship has defended the company’s record and disputed accusations that he puts profits ahead of safety.

Authorities have said high methane levels may have played a role in the disaster. Massey has been repeatedly cited and fined for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up.

Hours after the blast, the company flew Gov. Joe Manchin back from a Florida vacation on one of its planes, Manchin said Monday. The governor’s top lawyer told him the use of the company’s plane was acceptable because it was an emergency situation and a flight on a state plane couldn’t immediately be arranged.

Mourning continued Monday, exactly a week after the explosion, with a wreath-laying ceremony at the state Capitol and a moment of silence planned for 3:30 p.m. President Barack Obama on Monday ordered all U.S. flags in the state flown at half-staff until sunset Sunday.

The magnitude of the tragedy is also prompting the state panel that writes mining safety rules to seek a greater role in the investigation. Typically, the state Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety reviews state and federal mine inspectors’ reports after they complete an investigation of a fatality. This time, the group of union and industry officials wants to join the inspectors underground during the probe, and it’s holding an emergency meeting today to map out its role, administrator Joel Watts said.