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Images from the WVA mine disaster Left: Michelle McKinney holds a photo of her father, Bennie, who was killed in the explosion at the Upper Big Branch coal mine. (Jeff Gentner/AP Images) Right: West Virginia Police direct traffic at the mine on April 5, 2010. (Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

Tragedy in the Coal Mines

Underground blast in West Virginia coal mine claims the lives of 29 miners in worst mining disaster since 1970

By Laura Leigh Davidson | null null , null
(Map: Jim McMahon)
(Map: Jim McMahon)

Breaking News Update Saturday, April 10, 2010: After five days of stop-and-start searching, rescue teams found dead the four miners who had been missing. This brings the death toll from the blast at the Upper Big Branch mine to 29, making it the worst mining disaster in the United States since 1970.

The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has begun investigating the cause of the mine blast. MSHA Official Kevin Stricklin says the organization "will leave no stone unturned."

The following article is the original story published by Scholastic News Online on Tuesday, April 7.

The town of Montcoal, West Virginia, and the surrounding community are struggling to deal with a terrible mining disaster. On Monday afternoon, an underground explosion rocked the nearby Upper Big Branch mine. The blast killed 25 miners, and rescue efforts are under way for four who are still missing. Two escaped the blast with injuries.

Steve Smith was in the mine when the explosion happened. He was near the exit and was able to escape the blast.

"Before you knew it, it was just like your ears stopped up, you couldn't hear," Smith told ABC's Good Morning America. "And the next thing you know, it's just like you're right in the middle of a tornado."

The explosion at the mine is the worst underground mining disaster in the U.S. in 25 years.

What caused the blast?

Investigators still aren’t sure what caused the mine blast. Kevin Stricklin is an official with the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). He told The New York Times the huge explosion showed that "something went very wrong."

Mining experts say that explosions like this one are usually caused by a buildup of methane, a gas that catches fire very easily. When coal is dug out of the earth, methane is released.

Underground mines can fill up with the flammable gas, and a stray spark can light it and cause an explosion. As a result, mines are required to have giant fans that ventilate, or blow the gas out of the areas where miners work.

In the days ahead, investigators will have to determine if something went wrong with the Upper Big Branch mine’s ventilation system.

"All explosions are preventable," Stricklin said. "It’s just making sure you have things in place to keep one from occurring."

Mining is a dangerous job

Mining has always been dangerous. Workers at mines like Upper Big Branch have to travel as much as 1,000 feet below the earth’s surface to perform their daily tasks.

Miners have to be careful of such dangers as falling rocks, cave-ins, large digging and loading machinery, and the explosives used for blasting.

In spite of all these hazards, the number of mine accidents and deaths has steadily decreased over the years. Mining companies, miners' unions, and the government are continually looking for ways to make mining safer. Miners also take many special training courses and participate in safety-education programs.

The U.S. relies on coal

The natural resources from mining, coal in particular, are extremely important to people in the United States. More than half the electricity generated in the U.S. comes from coal. Coal mining also provides hundreds of thousands of jobs in the U.S. Many communities depend on mining to survive.

But the tragedy at Upper Big Branch shows that risk is still a big part of the miner’s job. For now, families in the West Virginia coal mining community around Montcoal are holding out hope for the four miners who are still missing.

"There's a sliver of hope, but we know that the odds are not in our favor," West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin told CNN. "Everyone's going to cling to the hope of a miracle."

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