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Rescuers too late to save trapped miners
Governor vows to press for better safety -- 2nd disaster in West Virginia in 3 weeks

Ian Urbina, Gary Gately, New York Times

Melville, W.Va. -- An agonizing two-day wait came to a tragic end on Saturday when rescue workers found the bodies of two coal miners who were trapped by a fire that began on a conveyor belt 900 feet underground.

Gov. Joe Manchin, whose state is still reeling from the deaths of 12 miners in Sago after a Jan. 2 explosion, expressed anguish Saturday and pledged to introduce legislation on Monday to improve mine safety.

"I can't tell you the pain that we have," Manchin said at a news conference after visiting the miners' families who were gathered at the Brightstar Freewill Baptist Church in this tiny mining community 60 miles southwest of Charleston.

The smoky blaze had raged underground at the Alma Mine No. 1 in Melville since Thursday night. Officials identified the two miners as Don Bragg, 33, of Accoville, and Ellery Hatfield, 47, who was known as Elvis, of Simon. Both men had over 10 years of experience in mining and had worked at Alma for five years. Manchin said Bragg had two young children and Hatfield had four.

"No families should have to go through what these families have been through," Manchin said.

The governor said he would introduce legislation to speed up emergency response to mine disasters, employ technology to track miners electronically and mandate reserve oxygen supplies inside mines. Manchin also said he would go to Washington to press the federal government for changes and vowed to "make sure that every brave miner, every brave worker in this state knows they're in the safest conditions humanly possible."

Rep. Nick Rahall, a Democrat whose district includes the Alma mine, told reporters, "The status quo is unacceptable."

"It's unfortunate that every coal mine health and safety law on the books today is written with the blood of coal miners," he said. "It takes a tragedy, unfortunately, to toughen these laws and to pass them in the first place."

The two missing miners were among a team of 12 who put on breathing gear and tried to escape to the surface, but only 10 made it out, said Doug Conaway, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training. Nine others in another part of the mine also escaped, Conaway said. The mine is operated by Aracoma Coal, a subsidiary of the Massey Energy Company, based in Richmond, Va.

Rescue workers were not able to contain the fire until Saturday when efforts to find the miners expanded.

Around 3:15 p.m. Saturday, the news that the miners' bodies had been found came from inside the mine to the command center, said Rocky Adkins, a Logan County administrator who was in charge of supplies for the 16 rescue teams at the mine. The command center was put on lockdown to prevent any calls or information from leaving the site and to allow the governor and mine officials time to go to the church to inform the families personally, Adkins said.

The bodies of the miners were to be sent to a medical examiner's office in Charleston.

Efforts to put out the fire had been hampered by the size and complexity of the mine, a labyrinth of cross-passageways spreading over about 6 square miles.

This was not the first such fire, said one Alma miner, who spoke anonymously because he feared reprisals from his employers. "I work at the belt that caught fire and had to put out a fire at the same exact spot just a couple weeks ago when the sprinkler system didn't work," the miner said, referring to a fire he said occurred on Dec. 23. "I reported the fire to my supervisor, and he ignored it."

Asked several times about the reported fire in December, Manchin and state and federal mining officials said they had no knowledge of it.

In July 2002, the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration withdrew a proposal that would have required conveyor belts to be made with fire-resistant materials.

Since June, the Alma mine has been cited at least 12 times for violations involving fire equipment, according to government records.

Local residents expressed frustration that no representatives from Massey Energy had been present at news briefings. Some pointed out that officials from the Sago Mine had been on the scene after the explosion there trapped 13 miners, killing all but one.

"Representatives from the company were present answering hardball questions in the Sago disaster," said Chris Stratton of Logan. "I don't see why Massey doesn't give us the same privilege."

The company released a statement Saturday, saying that it was saddened by the miners' deaths and that the company will focus on comforting the families.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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