Fire erupts in Aracoma Coal (West Virginia) mine; two miners missing

Rescue teams were searching an underground coal mine early Friday for two miners who were unaccounted for after a fire broke out, authorities said.

The fire started Thursday evening on a conveyor belt at the Alma No. 1 Mine operated by Massey Energy subsidiary Aracoma Coal, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) southwest of Charleston, West Virginia.

A dozen had gone into the mine to start their shift when a carbon monoxide monitor sounded an alarm, said Doug Conaway, director of the state Office of Miners' Health Safety and Training. The monitor was located about 10,000 feet (3,050 meters) inside the mine and about 900 feet (275 meters) underground, he said.

The miners encountered smoke, put on breathing gear and rushed from the mine, he said, but two were separated from the group. Nine others in another part of the mine also escaped.

Less than three weeks ago, an explosion at the International Coal Group's Sago Mine in Upshur County killed 12 miners. The disaster's sole survivor remained hospitalized in a light coma Friday.

Gov. Joe Manchin arrived at the scene, and miners' families gathered to wait at a nearby church. Four rescue teams were searching the mine, two were on standby and others were traveling to the mine. Haskell Sheppard, 29, works the overnight shift as a repairman on the main conveyor belt that brings the coal out. He said the line where the fire broke out had problems in the past, but nothing as serious as this time.

The Alma mine received 95 citations from inspectors last year, according to the Mine Safety and Health Administration's Web site. The most recent were issued Dec. 20, when the mine was cited with seven violations ranging from controlling coal dust and other combustible materials to its ventilation plan, reports the AP.

The mine was assessed US$28,268 in penalties last year and it has paid nearly US$13,000. It has not had a fatal accident since 1995. The mine had a better-than-average accident rate between 2001 and 2004, but it increased last year when 16 workers and one contractor were injured.

A.M.