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Mine Explosion in West Virginia; Twelve Confirmed Dead, Many Still Missing

Aired April 5, 2010 - 23:59   ET


ANNOUNCER: This is CNN Breaking News.

LARRY KING, CNN HOST: Good evening. This is a special second edition of "LARRY KING LIVE" and we are live at midnight Eastern, 9:00 Pacific. We're continuing CNN's Breaking News coverage of the disaster in West Virginia. Rescuers are working feverishly to reach miners believed to be deep underground at the Upper Big Branch Mine. A massive explosion there around 3:00 p.m. this afternoon killed seven. Nineteen are unaccounted for at the Massey Energy Company facility.

The blast may have trapped workers a mile and a half underground. We've got lots to do in this special second edition hour of "LARRY KING LIVE" and we're live with you right now. Let's first go to Kennie Bass of WCHS. What can you tell us, Kennie?

KENNIE BASS, WCHS-TV CORRESPONDENT: Larry, we're getting ready here for an official briefing. Kevin Stricklin from MSHA is going to be the lead person handling the briefing. As you mentioned, seven killed, nineteen missing. Two are injured. The mine rescue teams are underground working quickly but cautiously to try to find those nineteen missing miners.

Joining Kevin Stricklin at the podium is Ron Wooten. He's with the state office of Miner Safety and Training, U.S. Representative Nick Rahall, who represents the 3rd District in West Virginia is also here along with a couple of state senators, Mike Green from Raleigh County and Ron Stallings also. So the press conference is getting underway. Gentleman, go right ahead.

KEVIN STRICKLIN, MSHA: Thank you. Good evening. We have recently reached the family members, and we wanted to come for. So we appreciate your patience, and as I said earlier I'd really appreciate if you would just give the families the respect that they deserve right now, and give them time to grieve and pray and just hope for the best.

Joining me up here is Congressman Rahall, Senator Ron Stallings, Jim Giannetti from the governor's office, Ron Wooten -- Ron is the director of the state of West Virginia, and Senator Mike Green from West Virginia as well. Unfortunately, we have some additional bad news. The first press conference we had with you indicated that there were seven fatalities. That number has not increased to 12. There were five additional bodies that were found underground by our rescue teams. They are advancing as quickly as possible. They're getting closer to the area where if there's an opportunity for men to have gone after the explosion occurred to a refuge chamber, were trying to get to those refuge chambers on the areas of the sections where the people are working as quickly as possible, and the rescue teams are working as feverishly as they can.

We do not have the names of the five individuals who have been found underground because the rescue teams have gone passed where they are to try to get the people who possibly are surviving, and that's just the way rescue teams are trained to do. We want to try to get in there as quickly as possible and find survivors.

We respect that the people who've passed away. We don't want to do anything in a negative way toward their body, but it's important for us to try to get the survivors are quickly as possible. The company, the state, and MSHA are all working together. There are nine rescue teams that are at the mine site working as quickly as they can, and we're hoping that we're going to continue to go in there and possibly get to the refuge chamber within the next couple of hours.

We have seen the gas concentrations at the fan continue to go down. Initially they started at about 7,000 parts per million and they're down to about 2,800 parts per million. That indicates that whatever was there is residual and there is not an ongoing fire that is taking place right now. And we're just, as I said, we're focused on getting in there as quickly as possible.

Anybody else would like to say anything?

RON WOOTEN: Thank you, Kevin. Very briefly, as Kevin mentioned, we've got several mine rescue teams working as hard as they can. Their job is to try to find, at this point, try to find survivors. There are two shelters, two emergency shelters that we're looking toward. One is on the long wall section, and the second is on the adjacent development section.

We believe that they should reach those emergency shelters, at least the first one on the long wall section, at just about any time. Hopefully this ordeal, as Kevin mentioned, will come to a conclusion, and we should be able to find out some additional information within the next couple of hours and explore what needs to be explored in the mine. And that's the job of the mine rescue team members is to go in and make sure that they explore every area where people could be.

They also need to explore for contaminated air. They need to make certain that the mine is safe. The bodies will not be recovered until the mine is ventilated, which means that the mine rescue teams have to do their work before anything else is done along those lines. Congressman?

REP. NICK REHALL (D-WV): I just want to add I think this has been one of the quickest, if not the quickest response that we've had to a disaster in our mining community. I commend the mine rescue teams, all of the mine rescue teams that have come from the surrounding areas and responded in the fashion that they have. I've talked to a lot of them as they prepare to enter the mine. Our prayers certainly are first with the families; those that are anxiously awaiting are just as importantly our prayers are with those mine rescuers who are going underground and putting their life in danger to save other life. To the medical personnel to the ambulances that have the responded, to the volunteer fire departments, to the many, many medics that have come from all over West Virginia, we say thank you.

And we shall get through this because of the strength of our people. I've been with the families for several hours, even beating a lot of the families to the center and they're strong. They're strong, and they're united in prayer, and they're united as only West Virginians can come together at a time like this and unite and see one another through tragedy. That's what we're about.

REPORTER: Explain the five men you found, how far away were they from the other men that were found?

RON WOOTEN, OFFICE OF MINER SAFETY: They were approximately 1,000 to 2,000 feet away. They were further into the mine from where the mantrip was found.

REPORTER: Was it the initial blast? Was it the aftereffects? Or were they just trying to run away?

WOOTEN: It appears that it was the initial blast.

REPORTER: You say you're still looking for 14 men then?

WOOTEN: I don't have the numbers in front of me. I think it's 10 men that we're looking for right now.

REPORTER: You mentioned also the emergency chambers that these men might be in.

WOOTEN: It was partially installed. It was not installed on the section. It indicated where the people had gone passed that point so we know how many people were in that area, but we don't know the exact location. We can assume that if they survived the initial explosion that they would try to make it to on of the refuge alternatives.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: May I add one there, as far as the tracking and communication system is concerned. West Virginia law requires that we know when people are moving on to a section. It doesn't require that we track them on the section. So that last reader may be well out by the section as long as we know that individuals are in fact on that working section. And that's what Mr. Stricklin was referring to, and that's exactly what we have.

REPORTER: Can you clarify the number missing?

WOOTEN: I believe the numbers -- for some reason, the company -- there's different areas that miners evacuate from the mine. And when everything was concluded, right now we have five additional fatalities and we have ten more miners that we're actually looking for underground.

The one positive thing that we've seen is there is a cache of SCSRs -- that's an area of SCSR storage or self-rescuers that miners would go to if something were to occur. There's an area that indicates that SCSRs were taken from that area, which gives us hope that maybe that's because of the miners had survived the initial blast, made their way to grab and additional SCSR and hopefully, again -- this is just hopeful -- that they would make their way to a refuge chamber, or somewhere where the air is clean enough for them to breathe, and for the rescuers to go and rescue them from the mine.

REPORTER: How many were taken?

WOOTEN: I don't have that number. I don't know the number of SCSRs that were there, but it was easily seen by the rescue teams that there were SCSRs that were removed from that storage area.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These storage areas can vary. They may be as small as five or as many as 25.

You know, there's really no timeline, although everything seems to be progressing. Everybody at the mine site has agreed that there's no reason to slow down or stop. So it's just a systematic approach. In the same breath, we're moving as quickly as we can, and we have not been stopped by any of the gas readings that we've seen.

So as Mr. Wooten said, he would expect that to continue in the near future and try to get into the area closer to the place where we would expect the miners to be.

REPORTER: I know you're not releasing the names of the most recent five victims, but what about the seven before that?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've notified the seven families of their loved one that is deceased.

REPORTER: But these most recent five, you just don't even know their identifies?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We do not know their identity. The rescue teams are trained to go and look for survivors and to not remove bodies until the area has actually been ventilated, as been discussed earlier.

REPORTER: So that's twelve fatalities and ten unaccounted for?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That is correct.

REPORTER: How many injured?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's two injured that have been taken to area hospitals.

I do not know which ones are deceased and which ones are unaccounted for. We just have a total number now, and we haven't started tying it into specific people yet. REPORTER: How about where the explosion occurred?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We do not know that. I'm sure the state and MSHA will do a joint investigation as well as the company after the fact. That's not something that we're looking at right now. We're focused on a rescue operation and we'll deal with the investigation to determine the cause and location of the explosion later.

REPORTER: Any indication if the weather played an effect?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Of weather? I'm not aware of any weather that would have played a factor. I don't want to rule anything out until we actually would do an investigation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And that investigation will not start any time in the near term, and it will be extensive. It will take quite a while to complete, both the state investigation and the federal, and I'm sure the company, state, and federal will work together on the investigation and we'll give as much information out as we possibly can.

REPORTER: Can you tell us the progress of how far they've gone?

WOOTEN: This is the long wall section, and this long wall face is at approximately this location. The mine rescue team has come up to the face closest, within 7 cross cuts of the face, which is in this vicinity. This is the development section.

When we left the command center, they had progressed up to this area which they call a glory hole. They had surveyed that area. They found no problems and they were just starting on this development section. This development section is up about 2,000 feet.

REPORTER: So about 2,000 feet more to go?

WOOTEN: When we left the command center, they had about 2,000 feet to go. But you have to understand too that these mine rescue teams, once one team starts in, that doesn't necessarily mean that they're going to get all the way. For instance, we know that one mine rescue team was running a little low on air.

So they had to be relieved out by another team. So it sort of leapfrogs, if you will.

REPORTER: Ron, what is the progression speed? How quickly are they moving in?

WOOTEN: I couldn't estimate that. But I can tell you that based on these kinds of things that I've been involved in, in the past, they're moving very well. Would you agree with that, Kevin?

STRICKLIN: I would. And naturally as we get closer to where the explosion may have originated, it'll become a little slower because there's probably a lot more dust in the air, a lot more debris that the rescue teams are dealing with, and naturally you want to take a lot more time to make sure that you don't walk across a survivor.

And they got to tie all the area in before they would advance in any further.

WOOTEN: And they advance what we call a fresh air station, fresh air base, and it was up in this vicinity.

REPORTER: Are you all still considering digging the holes?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We are. We have already -- the company has already ascertained GPS readings on the surface, and that is available to us. The one thing that is favorable so far is that we're making progress underground quicker than a bore hole would go in from the surface. It's about 1200 feet for a bore hole to actually go into the area where we think survivors may be.

So time element would benefit us to just continue going underground, and we have in our back pocket the ability to start drilling that hole if we foresee a problem with our underground advancement.

REPORTER: How far in is the mantrip? How many thousand feet?

WOOTEN: Here was the porthole where they would go in and here's the mantrip. The scale of this map is one inch to 500 feet. So it would probably be about 6 to 7,000 feet from the outside to where that mantrip was found.

REPORTER: On the map, can you show us where the mantrip was, where the five fatalities are and where the emergency chambers are?

WOOTEN: Well right in this area is where the mantrip was found. Additional bodies were found in this area right here going towards the long wall section, and we have chambers located on the face area of another section, and there's also a chamber somewhere around the long wall face.

REPORTER: And you said they work in groups?

WOOTEN: It's my understanding that there were nine on the active sections here on daylight shift today.

REPORTER: Ron or Kevin, what we learned from Sego, how helpful has it been to what's going on here? Not just the refuge chambers, but also the rescue operations?

WOOTEN: The one benefit that -- there's a number of benefits. Congressman Rahall and the folks in the United States Congress have put some things in place that if there's an opportunity for people to have lived through the initial explosion, miners are better trained in the uses of SCSRs. There's more SCSRs available to them, availability for them to get to a refuge chamber, and a refuge chamber that was never in place prior to the miner act of 2006.

So there's a lot of benefits that have been put in place. We're hoping that they live through the initial explosion and were able to don their SCSRs and make it to a refuge chamber and have the ability to be rescued by the rescue teams.

STRICKLIN: The other point that I would make is that the response time, I think by the agencies and by the company was accelerated considerably in this instance.

REPORTER: I'm sorry. I don't even know if you'd know this but have these guys in the mine went through training with these chambers and had practice drills to know exactly where to go and what to do?

WOOTEN: I don't know of they've had recent training, but they're required to have quarterly training, and I don't know when that last time was.

REPORTER: What's the scene like?

WOOTEN: I'm going to ask the company if they -- I'm not sure of that number. We can get that for you for the next press conference. We'd like to get back up to the mine and focus up there. What our plan is, is to have a press conference -- or talk to the families somewhere around 2:00 a.m. and we would be more than willing to come back over here after that, say about 3:00 a.m. and give you an update to where we are.

REPORTER: Do you know who all are missing?

WOOTEN: We have a list of all the people that were unaccounted for earlier today, and we still have that list. Naturally, we're not going to share that with the media. That's private to the families over there, and that information would be available at the conclusion if -- who the survivors were and who the deceased are after we've concluded this rescue operation.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We have time for one more question and this is it.

REPORTER: Any update on the injured?

WOOTEN: Could you repeat that please?

REPORTER: That were taken to the hospital?

WOOTEN: I have not heard anything of the two that were taken to the hospital.

STRICKLIN: It's my understanding that one is deceased and is counted in the 12.

REPORTER: Did he die at the hospital?

STRICKLIN: I can't answer that. I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Okay, that's it. Thank you very much. We'll be back at 3:00 a.m.

KING: Well that was an extraordinarily informative press conference well conducted by both gentleman. This is a special second live edition of "LARRY KING LIVE" that started at midnight Easter, 9 Pacific, and we brought you right on time that entire conference. We'll be back with special guests right after this.


KING: Welcome back. With us on the phone is Jenny Waycaster. Jenny's son was just arriving for his evening shift at the time the explosion occurred. Did anything happen to your boy, Jenny?

JENNY WAYCASTER: No. He was one of the fortunate ones that didn't -- I was blessed. I was blessed.

KING: Did he call you right away?

WAYCASTER: No. I didn't hear nothing. I went down there and I found out, you know, along with a lot of other people you know. I wasn't hearing anything you know, and I just had someone with me that we just started calling around and I found out my son was okay.

KING: Did you finally see him?

WAYCASTER: Oh, yes. I did. Oh, goodness, a couple of hours later I saw him.

KING: Where is he now?

WAYCASTER: He's at home.

KING: How old is your boy?


KING: Has he been a miner for a long time?

WAYCASTER: Kevin's -- yes, he's been a miner, well a couple of years, and then he went to Florida and came back and went back into the mines.

KING: Is he married?

WAYCASTER: Yes, he is.

KING: Do you expect him to stay in mining?

WAYCASTER: I do believe he will. I really believe he will. It's -- this is a good place up here, and it's family. There's so many people hurting, you know, they know each other.

KING: Yes.

WAYCASTER: You know, he's got friends that he don't know about.

KING: But you deal, Jenny, with this worry every day, don't you?

WAYCASTER: Yes. Every family has this worry, but you know, this is their life. This is what they, you know, they live for, the way they make a living.

KING: Do you know anyone who has died in this event, or no one has been informed yet?

WAYCASTER: I have heard of a few.

KING: Do you know them?

WAYCASTER: Yes, I do. Friends.

KING: So you know their wives?

WAYCASTER: Yes, I know families. Yes, I do.

KING: Do these people all tend to gather together after something like this?

WAYCASTER: Yes, they do. They really stick together. They're, you know, it's sad. I was in that group of hundreds of people down there tonight, and my heart breaks for them. My heart breaks for them because at the time -- I don't know if they even know now that, you know, whether theirs have survived or not.

KING: That's a horrible thing, that waiting.

WAYCASTER: Yes, it is. That's the most -- I guess -- it's horrible. It really is. But you know, the people bind and bond together. You know, we had prayer. That's what helps the most you know, is knowing we have someone that helps us through this.

KING: Are you a West Virginian by birth?


KING: Are you married, Jenny?


KING: Are you married?

WAYCASTER: No, I'm not. I'm a widow.

KING: Was your husband a miner?

WAYCASTER: Yes. My husband was. My children's dad was a coal miner, and my dad was a coal miner.

KING: It's been part of your life from your birth.

WAYCASTER: Yes, it has. Yes, it has.

KING: Thanks, Jenny. We may check with you. I really appreciate you talking with us.

WAYCASTER: Thank you, Larry, and tell your viewers to really pray for these families. KING: I'm sure they are right now.

WAYCASTER: Thank you so much.

KING: Jenny Waycaster. There is a lady. Let's go back to Kennie Bass from WCHS with an update from the scene. Kennie?

BASS: Larry, the worst news that we got during that press briefing led by Kevin Stricklin with MSHA of course is the news that five additional bodies were discovered by mine rescue teams. That brings the total number of known dead to 12. There are still 10 missing that they're actively searching for. They have refuge chambers that they're hopeful they went to.

It was reported that mine rescue teams were able to look along with the SCSRs, those are self-contained self-rescuers, the breathing units that miners wear. Some of those were gone. So it's hopeful that those surviving miners or missing miners survived the initial blast and had made their way to a refuge chamber with those additional SCSRs.

It was a very moving scene at the place where the families were gathering earlier tonight. I covered the Sego explosion. I covered the Aracoma Alma Number One explosion just a couple of weeks after that, the fire where to two Massey miners died in that incident.

And it doesn't get any easier when you see families come across that bridge and headed to the area that Massey had set up for them so they could be away from the media, so they could be getting briefings from the company first before they got word from anywhere else. It was a very controlled situation for their benefit, as it should be.

And the raw emotions of those families coming across in those vehicles, those trucks and those cars. Someone saying that their husband had died or their son had died, or another son-in-law had passed away, and the emotions range from grief to anger. Many were inconsolable, tears on many faces. This is a very, very, very tough night in Southern West Virginia.

The hope though, as mine rescue teams continue in, they are making good progress. The gas levels are going down. They say that indicates they don't believe there's a continuing fire. That it's only residual gas from the effects of the explosion and that they are getting closer to where they believe the ignition point took place, and they are hopeful of finding ten missing miners alive. But right now, we just don't know their fate.

KING: People in West Virginia live with this every day, right? They live with fear?

BASS: Well, it is a, as I said earlier to some friends of mine as we're covering this, that it is a special breed of cat, a guy who can go underground every day and work thousands of feet underground, miles underground every day. I've been underground. Sometimes they're working in a seam that's 36 inches tall. That's all the room they have, and for those guys to work every day and provide that this energy that this country desperately needs, I take my hat off to them.

And then the mine rescue teams on top of that. There are nine mine rescue teams here. Not just from Massey Energy, but from other coal companies. They all come together. That's another very special breed because they go into a coal mine -- they're just like firefighters and first responders. They go in when everybody else is running out. These are very brave men who are very dedicated to their jobs.

KING: Hang tough, Kenny. Thanks very much. Stay with us. When we come back, we'll check in with Joe Johns for some stories about this company, how they've dealt with things like this in the past. We'll also be talking with other people involved by phone. You're watching a special live edition of "LARRY KING LIVE" a second edition that began at Midnight Eastern, 9:00 Pacific. Don't go away.



UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I think it's a very sad tragedy that these families have to endure. It's really sad. My husband was a miner and it's something sad that you have to live through.

REPORTER: And you have relatives who work at this one, right?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, I do. My son works at it, but he's not at work right now. He's home. But my niece's husband is there. He's trapped.

REPORTER: He's trapped underground?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, he's trapped.

REPORTER: What's his name?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: His name is Brandon.


KING: Joe Johns, our CNN Senior Correspondent is with us in Washington. He's been examining the safety record of the Massey Energy Company and the Upper Big Branch Mine specifically. What have we learned?

JOE JOHNS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Larry, by most accounts, the parent company Massey has been improving its safety record. But this particular mine has repeatedly been cited for mining safety violations going back years. Records compiled by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration show that proposed penalties assessed against the mine reached nearly a million dollars last year, which would be three times more than any other year and the number of citations against the mine more than doubled within the last year.

Last year also, the mine had 50 so-called unwarrantable failure violations which are among the most serious findings an inspector can issue against a company. Among these citations, concerns about escape ways for miners. Air quality. Ventilation.

Now to be clear, being charged with a violation doesn't necessarily mean a company did anything wrong. A lot of times mining companies contest the charges, including this company, they've actually contested numerous charges. But some of the other violations are among the more serious ones. And we've reached out to Massey to comment. We haven't been able to get a hold of them.

They have defended their safety record. In a statement tonight, actually about this accident, they said, "Our top priority is the safety of our miners and the wellbeing of their families." We've also reached out to the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to talk about these numbers. They haven't gotten back to us either. So that's what we know for now. It's something we'll be looking at for awhile. Meanwhile, the search for these miners continues, and that's what everybody is focused on right now, Larry.

KING: Of course. Hang right there, Joe. Ellen Smith is on the phone from Rochester, New York. Owner and Managing Editor of Mine Safety and Health News. Ellen, can you back up what Joe has been telling us about this company?

SMITH: Absolutely. I mean there's no doubt that Massey Energy has made improvements, and I think as a whole the mining industry since 2006 with the Sego and Darby Accidents have really been on heightened alert. And to look at these mine statistics for this particular mine though are somewhat disturbing because it doesn't fit the pattern of Massey's other improvements.

For 2009, this mine had 458 violations compared to 188 from just the previous year. And of those violations, 48 were unwarrantable failure to comply. I mean these were flagrant. They were violations that have popped up over and over again. They were for ventilation plans, accumulation of combustible materials, you know, things that can go wrong to make a mine explode.

And of course, we don't know what happened but there are problems.

KING: In most mine explosions, is it usually a problem connected with a man made problem or are many natural things that occur in the earth?

SMITH: Well, I mean the methane builds up, and it builds up because we've mined out the mine. We've mined out the coal. And you know, those gasses are released and they're there. We have a lot of factors in the mine that can trigger the methane, which is why you have to be in heightened alert when you have a mine that liberates a lot of methane as this one does.

In the Sego mine, when that happened, it turns out it was lightning that hit a tree and then hit a pipe that was grounded and ended up going into the mine that no one ever even knew about. But again, I mean even though lightning hit at Sego, we did see a mine operating with a lot of violations. And that's what we see here with this particular mine. We don't know what caused the accident, but we know that this mine has some issues. And we decided to take a look at some other large companies because there aren't a lot of large mining companies that have this many people underground. They had 211 employees last year, and they have 50 alleged unwarrantable failure violations.

So those are the most egregious. Now looking at three other and larger operations at random, Jim Walter Resource's No. Seven mine was more than 700 employees, more than 600 men underground, had two alleged unwarrantable failure citations for last year.

KING: Wow.

SMITH: I mean two compared to fifty. In West Virginia Consolidation Coal, Robertson run mine has more than 500 employees, 400 underground and last year they had nine alleged unwarrantable failures.

KING: Hold it, Ellen. Joe, does this shock you?

JOHNS: You're talking to me? No. Actually it does not. I mean when you look across the range of all the different companies that mine coal in this country, and then you look at the changes that were made since Sego -- the 2006, 2007 era -- what you know is that mining companies are in the business of mining coal and if there is a safety regulation that they have to follow, it's got to be in the law. It's got to be something that's gone into regulations, and it's got to be something that will be enforced by the government.

Otherwise, there's sort of a disincentive there for these companies to actually spend the money to put these additional regulations in place.

KING: So profit is more important than people?

JOHNS: There are people who will say that, and there are people who will argue that a lot of different coal companies are still very much operating, number one on the margins, and number two, with the profit motive in mind. I mean you got to do what you've got to do is you're a corporation. The question is how good is that for your people and where you're going to strike that balance. So it's something that happens all over this country, and it's tough.

KING: We'll take a break. We'll be right back. Hold on, Ellen. We'll come back with you. Tom Foreman is standing by, Tommy Oprigard, lots more. Don't go away.



REPORTER: What's been going through your mind?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I don't know, man. I don't know how to explain it. It's like I got hit in the gut right there real hard. Just keep getting hit. REPORTER: What have you heard happened?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I heard that there was a crew of men that I worked with -- they work dayshift. Some of them didn't make it. There's two of them that did. That's all I've heard. I've heard it from guys just walking up and down this road here. I've heard -- I don't know no names or anything. But I just heard that one crew didn't make it and two of them did. An electrician and somebody else made it.

REPORTER: As being in the mine industry yourself, how does this make you feel about your own life?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Scared, man. I mean I got to work tonight. I got to go to work in a couple of hours. I don't know. It's like I was in the mine. I worked on the section that blew up.

REPORTER: So you've been there?


REPORTER: What's it like?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Scary. I mean it's dark, wet, cold.


KING: Ellen Smith, Joe Johns still standing by. We'll go to Tony Oppegard, a mine safety expert in a couple of moments. Let's check in with our own Tom Foreman in Washington. We understand, Tom, that the bulk of coal removed from the Upper Big Branch Mine is called long wall mining. What is that?

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, Larry, it's an interesting thing to look at because there's so much we don't know about what happened, it's good to look at what we do know. Long wall mining is actually a technique that came up hundreds of years ago in England, and it was done by hand back then.

But it's really caught on in the past 30 years in this country because of automation and because equipment has grown much better at doing this. It increases the coal yield, and a lot of coal companies are particularly interested in because they believe it could lead to more automation, so cheaper coal and even less danger for people involved, less workers hired as well, Larry.

Let's take a cut of land here. If we were to take a piece of land here, we can just sort of cut out a square of it here and then go underneath, we can get a look at what this would actually do. This is a video from YouTube. I'm going to show you what long wall mining is like.

If you were take a big piece of land here and you were to go underneath and cut these little chambers in the side into the coal here and sort of cut out a big field shape here. They refer to it as a field, but this is enormous. I'm looking at that press conference awhile ago, Larry.

The scale they suggested there would suggest that their field from this side to this side is probably a thousand to maybe 1200 feet. So a tremendous distance side to side and one of these fields may be a mile or more this way.

There have bee a couple of them that have been up to two miles long. This has caught on because as you work your way through this, you can see how they start taking all of the coal out, just back and forth and back and forth with these giant machines that just chew away that coal. They throw it on to conveyor belts which then takes it on out here. So it's a very efficient way of getting coal.

Now, this picture however is a little bit deceptive because it looks like they're opening up a big, open area in here. That's not the case. As they move forward, they have a little area up here, probably about oh, say 15 feet deep. A little square like this. This sort of area. That's what they're working in on the face.

Back behind it here, as this moves forward, this is all allowed to collapse. So the mountain just falls down inside of here, tremendous tremendous weight falling down as they move forward. So you get an idea if this is 1,000 feet wide, and you had trouble in here, you can see how far it is to get to where the trouble began if you work that way.

But now I'm going to move this aside, Larry, and show you what this actually looks like underground. This is a government tape that was handed out. The workers are over here. This is one of those big augers, one of these big drills in effect. It's grinding away at that face. It may be cutting, at any moment, three and a half feet of coal.

So it's at least this wide. It's cutting that away from this face. Coming across the face. Here you can see above this, these are the special hydraulic shields that sort of rise up above the workers here and they create a working space for them.

These can support enormous, enormous weight. You can put many locomotives on top of this -- 600, 800 tons of weight pushing down on this at any given moment. And that's what protects the workers. But again, the distance from the coal face over here to this area back here maybe only about 15 feet.

This we also know Larry, while this is going on, while that grinding is going on along the face and these workers are here, a tremendous amount of coal dust is being created along that face. In addition, as mentioned earlier, there's methane in here. Both of these hugely explosive, and there's always the risk of some sort of structural collapse, particularly if you had an explosion that somehow effected those overhead supports there.

So this is what's called long wall mining, Larry. There are inherent risks in it. The goal in it is higher coal production with actually less risk but it is widely known that there's a huge amount of dust and a huge amount of methane right along that face. That's part of the danger, Larry, that's no doubt what investigators will be looking at.

KING: Tom Foreman sure knows his topic. On the phone with us is Tony Oppegard, Mine Safety Expert and Attorney. Tony, he mentioned, Tom, in that long discussion there with a great deal of knowledge of long wall mining, he mentioned about methane. Do you think methane might have been involved here?

TONY OPPEGARD: Well from the reports, Larry, it's certainly a prime suspect, and any time you have a mine explosion you automatically suspect methane and or coal dust which is highly explosive. So it certainly is a possibility. But I think one thing we have to stress is that we don't have enough information at this point to know whether or not the ignition source and the point of the location was actually at the face where the long wall is located. It could have been in another area of the mine.

KING: Is there always, Tony, always a high safety risk in mining?

OPPEGARD: Well, of course. It's an inherently dangerous occupation. There's very little margin for error in mining. You're working in confined spaces in the dark with large equipment, and the smallest error can cost a miner, you know, a limb, could be permanently disabling or could kill him. So you know, it's very dangerous work. It's a very difficult way to make a living.

I know this particular mine is a non-union mine, which means they don't have safety committee men in the mine, and which might be decrease the safety factor as well.

KING: Are there dangers in being part of a rescue team?

OPPEGARD: Oh, absolutely. The mine rescue workers are placing their lives in danger by going into the mine. For instance, we had a devastating explosion in eastern Kentucky in 1976 in Letcher County, and on March 9 of that year, there was a major explosion that killed 15 miners, and two days later as the recovery operations were underway and there was a lot of mine rescue team members and also federal mine inspectors underground, the mine blew up again and killed 11 more people.

So we had 26 folks killed in twin explosions. So the mine rescue teams have to be very careful. We have to be sure that there's not another ignition source while you're trying to rescue miners or recover bodies. So yes, they're at great risk.

KING: Very good, Tony. Going to take one more break. Come back and talk to Joe Main, the Assistant Secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health. He'll join us by phone right after these words.


KING: Joining us now by phone -- we'll go back to Joe Johns in a moment, is Joe Main, the assistant secretary of Labor for Mine Safety and Health. He joins us now by phone. Do we have strong enough federal regulations covering things like this, Joe? JOE MAIN, MINE SAFETY AND HEALTH: Well, I think the recent mine act improvements have made things better for miners but as we will look back after this event is over and make that calculation again to see what needs changed, what needs fixed. I think the key focus tonight is the rescue and recovery operations that ongoing at the mine and trying to locate the missing miners that are underground at the mine.

KING: Are you new in this administration or were you picked up from before?

MAIN: Actually I was confirmed in October. I've been on the job for a few months. Getting my feet wet as the saying goes.

KING: What were you doing before this?

MAIN: I spent all my life on mine safety. I actually worked for the United Mine Workers as their safety chief for about 22 years, and you know, worked internationally. Done a number of mine rescue recovery operations. Some pretty difficult, which this one is for the families involved and the miners involved here tonight.

KING: One of our guests mentioned that this mine is non-union and that therefore certain kind of inspectors were not on duty who would be in a union mine, is that true?

MAIN: Well probably what he's referring to is different union mines have what they call safety committees that conduct inspections and work with our federal inspectors during the course of inspections at the mine.

KING: Can the federal government impose things here if things are wrong?

MAIN: They've been known to do that in the past, and I would presume that if the findings of this investigation show shortcomings, there will be changes. But as we move forward with the rescue efforts at the mine, we will complete those and then start looking forward to finding out what went wrong here.

KING: Do you go to the scene?

MAIN: Actually heading here in just about an hour and a half. I've been here in our Washington office with our command center here this evening coordinating with our folks on the ground at the mine, and getting ready to head out and overnight make it down to the mine.

KING: That takes a while, doesn't it?

MAIN: I'm sorry?

KING: Finding cause.

MAIN: Finding cause is going to be a very thorough, methodical job that when we get to the point of investigating what went wrong here, there will be a very thorough investigation to address that. KING: Thanks, Joe, and good luck. Joe Main, assistant secretary of labor for Mine Safety and Health --.

MAIN: And prayers for the families, thank you Larry.

KING: Thank you. Joe Johns, apparently a lot of top people are on guard for this. You know, we're going to get some answers on it.

JOHNS: Think so. You know, one of the key questions you just asked is are the laws adequate, and this accident in West Virginia is going to be a big test that's going to tell us whether some of laws put in place after Sego, laws to have rescue shelters inside mines, better communications, whether all those laws actually work or something else more is needed. This is going to be a big test, and right now it doesn't look real good because we've already lost apparently as many miners in this accident as we did back in Sego.

KING: It's a tough bet for these ten still missing, isn't it?

JOHNS: Yes, well it does sound that way. But you don't want to speculate because you never know. There clearly was air down there. It sounds like people grabbed some of the air tanks. That seems to be a good sign. There is -- apparently, there are two rescue shelters, places where they would have been able to go, if they survived the initial blast.

So you just don't know how this is going to turn out, and you really don't want to speculate. That was the lesson of Sego, in fact, Larry. A lot of people at first were told, even, that the miners had all survived, and then it took a long time to discover they hadn't survived at all; they really had died, all but one of them.

So you just never know how a thing like this will go. Your heart goes out for those families sitting there waiting and praying. And until it's over, it's not over.

KING: We have a little over a minute left, Joe. In talking, just tonight -- especially with that lady, the mother -- this West Virginia group -- they're a strong group, aren't they?

JOHNS: Yeah, well, it's sturdy stock. You know, it really does, as the one man said, take a different breed of cat to go down in a mine and make a living in that way. The fact of the matter is, it's a good living, if you can stand it. Miners make good money, though they face a lot of danger and their families face a lot of heartache.

So yeah, you're right, it's a very different breed that works in the West Virginia coal mines.

KING: How good is "good money"?

JOHNS: Well, you know, we're talking 60(,000), 70,000 dollars a year, which can go a long way in parts of Appalachia. You know, it's not -- you're not making money like the CEO of a bank on Wall Street. But it's a living, it's enough to raise your kids on and have a decent lifestyle. KING: Joe -- thanks for outstanding work, Joe.

JOHNS: Thank you so much, Larry.

KING: Joe Johns, CNN senior correspondent.

This has been an extra hour of LARRY KING LIVE, a special hour that came to you at midnight, live -- 9:00 o'clock live in the Pacific Time Zone.

We'll break now and have continuing coverage. And don't forget --