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Two Workers Missing at West Virginia Mine

NORRIS: Less than three weeks after the disaster at the Sago Mine, there's been another mining accident in West Virginia. Rescuers are searching for two miners who are missing after a fire broke out early last night at the Alma No. 1 coal mine in Melville, West Virginia. West Virginia Public Radio's Anna Sale is in Melville, and she joins us now. Anna, what can you tell us about what happened last night?

ANNA SALE: At about 5:35 yesterday, officials believe some part of the conveyor belt caught on fire. 12 miners, a group of 12 miners heard a carbon monoxide alarm go off, so they had set on evacuating out of the mine. At some point, the smoke became so thick and the visibility was so low that two of the miners got separated from the group. Ten men emerged out of the mine, and they realized that two were still inside the mine. We don't know where they are, and we don't know who they are quite yet.

NORRIS: And what's the status of the rescue effort?

SALE: The rescue effort started around midnight last night, when rescue crews first entered the mine. As of this morning, there were about five rescue crews in the mine. By mid-morning, though, those rescue crews were refocusing. They wanted to focus on fighting the fire in the mine to try to decrease the levels of smoke and increase visibility. By this afternoon, officials said that the fire was under control and carbon monoxide levels were going down. The crews have progressed past where they were earlier this morning.

But the thing is, this mine is very large. It's honeycombed, with hallways running parallel and perpendicular to each other. Doug Conaway, who's with the West Virginia state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, stressed that even areas of the mine that the rescue crews have passed through have not been thoroughly checked out, so it could take some time to find these men.

NORRIS: And with this happening so close on the heels of the Sago Mine tragedy, I imagine that incident is very much on the minds of the people in and around Melville.

SALE: Of course, it's in everyone's thoughts, but they're hoping for a better result. We've seen some differences, though, from the way the Sago Mine disaster was handled. Aracoma Coal operates this mine. It's a subsidiary of Massey Energy. But unlike at Sago, we haven't seen any Massey Energy officials at press briefings today. Instead, they've been run by federal and state regulators. We also have seen less of Governor Joe Manchin. He's been spending a lot of his time with the families today and hasn't made as many statements to the press.

And, of course, coal mining is dangerous. The community members I've talked to are aware that every time you go into a mine there is this danger of a fire, of needing to evacuate, of not being able to get out. But at the same time, there were only three coal mining deaths in West Virginia last year. And a lot of people have told me that while they watched the Sago Mine disaster unfold on TV, and even though this is a coal mining community, they never expected to see it in their back yard.

NORRIS: Anna, just one last question before we let you go. Anything known about the safety record at the Aracoma mine?

SALE: I haven't been able to research that myself. Press reports have said that it's not like the numbers we saw at the Sago Mine. The last time there was an MSHA inspection, which was the last quarter of 2005, there were 28 violations cited, and seven of those included violations for the ventilation plan and three concerned accumulation of combustible materials.

NORRIS: Anna, thank you so much.

SALE: Sure, thank you.

NORRIS: Anna Sale, with West Virginia Public Radio. She was speaking to us about a rescue operation at a coal mine in Melville, West Virginia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anna Sale