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Rescuers find no trace of 2 missing miners

Smoke, fire still fill coal mine

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West Virginia

LOGAN, West Virginia (CNN) -- Rescue teams reached the face of a West Virginia coal mine Friday but found no sign of two missing miners, officials said.

Other teams entering the mine from two entrances were turned back by heavy smoke from a fire that erupted inside Aracoma Coal Co.'s Alma Mine No. 1 on Thursday.

The missing miners were separated from their crew as they were fleeing the fire. Their names and ages were not released at the request of their families, who are awaiting word at a nearby church, Gov. Joe Manchin said.

A state mining official said rescuers have made significant headway in extinguishing the blaze and reducing the levels of poisonous carbon monoxide.

Ray McKinney, a spokesman for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said rescuers hoped to clear three entries to vent smoke and improve ventilation.

He said there were pockets of fresh air where the miners might have retreated.

More than 20 rescue teams from several states were working at the mine but were hampered by poor visibility, said Doug Conaway, director of the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training. He further said during the Friday night news conference that the fire, though under control, had not been extinguished.

Conaway also said 16 teams were battling remnants of the fire and trying to improve ventilation. He said he was told the two missing men are "experienced miners."

"Time is not our friend," Manchin said earlier. "The longer the time goes, the more difficult it becomes. So, we're concerned about that."

The incident comes less than a month after 12 miners died in the wake of an explosion at the Sago Mine in Tallmansville. The only survivor remained hospitalized Friday. (Read latest on his condition)

The fire apparently began Thursday evening on a mechanical belt inside the Alma mine, government and mine officials said. The Massey Energy-owned mine is in Logan County, about 60 miles southwest of Charleston.

A carbon monoxide monitor in the mine went off at 5:36 p.m., indicating a fire, Conaway said. The blaze was located 900-1,000 feet deep and about 10,000 feet, or nearly 2 miles, from the mine entrance.

Reaching that area takes more than an hour, Conaway said.

Bob Friend, acting assistant director of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the men working inside started out of the mine within minutes but encountered smoke, Friend said.

That required them to get off the mantrip -- the device used to move personnel in and out of the mine -- and put on respirators, he said. They then crawled to the surface, where they appeared about 7:30 p.m.

Conaway said the 10 miners who were with the two missing men were debriefed but were not able to offer much information on where they might be.

Carbon monoxide levels were measured Friday morning at areas the rescuers could reach, but they had no way of knowing what the level might be wherever the missing miners are. Mine officials added that the ventilation system still could be working.

The mine has not had any fatal accidents since 1995, the first year tracked by the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Last year, Alma Mine No. 1 had a nonfatal accident rate of 9.01, compared with the national average of 6.39, according to the department's Web site. In 2004, the mine had a nonfatal accident rate of 0.82, compared with the national average of 5.66, the site said.

Katharine Kenney, Massey Energy's vice president of investor relations, said the miners at Aracoma are not in a union.

Aracoma is a longwall mine, among the more technologically advanced mine types, in which most coal extraction is automated, she said. If a sizable vein of coal is found, a scraper deposits coal onto a conveyer belt, which carries it to the surface.

Crews of about a dozen miners work 10-hour shifts operating equipment in the mine, she said.

CNNRadio's Ninette Sosa and Barbara Hall and CNN's Ronni Berke contributed to this report.

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