Rescue workers clinging to the slimmest of hope pushed deep into a shattered coal mine early Friday, trying to get far enough to finally resolve whether four miners somehow survived an explosion that killed 25.
Search teams had gotten frustratingly close a day earlier to answers for the families of the missing miners — just 500 feet from the emergency chambers where any survivors would be — then were ordered to retreat because of volatile gas.
With the air deemed slightly safer four days after the blast and colleagues above ground pumping in nitrogen to neutralize explosive methane gas, rescuers wearing oxygen masks moved back into rubble strewn with bodies, twisted railroad track, shattered concrete block walls and mounds of dust.
They carried with them four extra oxygen packs, just in case, but even before they went back underground, officials away from the Upper Big Branch mine had started using words like "recovery" and "bodies" more frequently.
"The families are relieved knowing that this process is starting, that the end will be near," Gov. Joe Manchin said around midnight.
The first stops for the rescuers are two refuge chambers stocked with enough oxygen, food and water to survive four days. If they haven't been used, the teams know their mission would turn to recovery of bodies. Eighteen are confirmed dead in the mine owned by Massey Energy Co.
"This is going to be a longer process when the bodies are beginning to be recovered," said Kevin Stricklin, coal administrator from the Mine Safety and Health Administration. "This is very tedious work. We gotta respect the bodies."
A number of teams would help in the grim task, said Stricklin.
Seven bodies have already been recovered, with funerals beginning Friday. Two miners survived their injuries in the worst coal disaster in more than two decades.
MSHA has appointed a team of investigators to look into what happened, and President Barack Obama said he has asked federal mine safety officials to report next week on what may have caused the blast. Officials have suggested a buildup of methane may have been to blame.
Massey Energy has been repeatedly cited and fined for problems with the system that vents methane and for allowing combustible dust to build up. CEO Don Blankenship has strongly defended the company's record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety.
Rescue teams, who waited around all day for their second chance, are mostly retracing their steps some five miles from the entrance. But they did find a short cut to the search area, and they'll be able to ride on ATVs instead of trudging on foot after the underground rail cars run out of track. They also left behind a lot of their gear that they'll pick up on the way, and Stricklin estimated it would take half the time to reach their destination this time.
For days, crews had been drilling holes into the sides of the mine to ventilate lethal carbon monoxide and highly explosive hydrogen and methane gas. Officials preferred that method to reduce the toxic levels, but realized late Thursday that the nitrogen would be needed.
By the time teams wearing breathing gear reach the search area, the nitrogen pumping will have started to take effect, Stricklin said.
Once methane levels dissipated, the nitrogen would be sucked back out so the air inside the mine will return to normal, he said.
"I believe the families are relieved that this process has started," Manchin said.
Regina Lilly was at Arvon's Floral in Whitesville buying a black and yellow ribbon arrangement to hang on her front door in support of the miners. She said she has been in rooms where officials let families know what's happening.
"They want answers; they're not getting answers," she said. "They want their family members brought out of that mine; they haven't got that yet."
Associated Press Writers Allen G. Breed, Greg Bluestein, Tim Huber, Vicki Smith 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.
© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.