Hours after 114 Chinese mine workers were rescued from the flooded Wangjialing mine, 25 coal miners were killed by an explosion at Massey Energy’s Upper Big Branch Mine in Raleigh County, West Virginia. Four workers remain unaccounted for, and resuce efforts have been put on hold until methane gas can be vented out of the mine.

Charleston Gazette staff writers  Ken Ward Jr., Gary A. Harki, and Kathryn Gregory report on the apparent cause of the blast and put it in the context of recent mining tragedies in the region:

Mine safety experts who were in contact with state and federal investigators said initial reports are that the explosion involved methane that built up inside a sealed area of the mine or that leaked through mine seals.

Such a scenario would be a repeat of the 2006 Sago and Darby disasters in West Virginia and Kentucky, which claimed 17 lives and prompted regulators to take a closer look at the safety of the vast sealed areas of underground coal mines for the first time in years.

They also give details on the size of this operation and its troubling safety record:

The Upper Big Branch Mine-South employs about 200 workers and last year produced about 1.2 million tons of coal, according to company disclosures filed with MSHA.

In seven of the last 10 years, the mine has recorded a non-fatal injury rate worse than the national average for similar operations, according to MSHA statistics.

Between 2008 and last year, safety violations at the operation more than doubled and fines issued by MSHA tripled, according to agency records.

And they write about the emotional toll on victims’ families and the community as a whole:

“If you’re from here, you’re part of a coal mining family,” said Grace Lafferty of nearby Harper. “You know a lot of people who work here. It takes your breath away, your heart drops and you have that empty feeling.”

One miner from the Massey operation declined to give his name, but said, “This is scary in more ways than one.”

“We’ve been through this many times before, and we know West Virginians will band together to get through it, but it doesn’t get any easier,” [US Representative Nick] Rahall said.

… One man, a family member of a victim of the Sago disaster, drove down to be with the families, he said.

“He is able to talk to them in a way very few could,” [West Virginia Governor Joe] Manchin said.

Though names have not been released, three members of one family all died in the disaster, Manchin said. Another member of the family was also in the mine, but survived, he said. That man lost his son, nephew and older brother, said Manchin, who lost an uncle in the Farmington Mine disaster in 1968.

Our thoughts are with the families whose loved ones have been killed and are still missing. We’ll be monitoring Ken Ward’s Coal Tattoo blog for updates and more information.

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