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Dec. 11, 2018 / 10:16 PM GMT
By Phil Helsel and Krista Brunson
Searchers were trying to reach three people believed to be inside a West Virginia coal mine on Tuesday, after one man emerged and gave information about their whereabouts, the governor said.
Contura Energy, whose affiliate, Elk Run Coal, owns the property, said in a statement the four people are “reported to have breached and unlawfully entered an inactive, sealed underground mine.”
The foursome was first reported missing late Saturday near the mine in Clear Creek, officials said.
The office of Gov. Jim Justice said Tuesday afternoon that the man who left the mine late Monday night “informed officials the remaining three missing persons were alive and still in the mine and provided details regarding their location.”
The statement said that on Tuesday officials were working to remove standing water from an alternate entryway and pump fresh air into the mine.
Raleigh County sheriff’s Lt. M.A. McCray said the man who emerged from the mine was not arrested, but was interviewed and is cooperating with authorities — and there will be a criminal investigation at some point but the focus right now is rescuing the people still in the mine.
Justice said that he authorized additional resources and personnel to help reach the three people missing in the Rock House Powellton mine in Raleigh County, which is southeast of Charleston.
“Our priority is rescuing these individuals and maintaining the safety of our mine rescue teams. I have ordered the coordination of all resources needed for rescuers to continue to search the mine. We’re doing everything we can to accelerate the rescue,” Justice said.
“Many prayers were answered when the one individual exited the mine with information about where the others were located,” he said in an earlier statement. “We are praying they can be found quickly and brought out to safety.”
The Office of Miners’ Health, Safety & Training mine rescue team was activated early Sunday morningafter an abandoned all-terrain vehicle the people are believed to have been riding was found near the mine’s entrance, Justice said.
Rescue teams had to exit the abandoned mine Tuesday morning due to poor ventilation, NBC affiliate WVVA of Bluefield reported.
The station reported that although the man who exited the mine was initially apprehended by law enforcement, he was released from jail to aid in the search.
The West Virginia National Guard is assisting in the search, spokesman Capt. Holli Nelson said Monday. The mine has been closed for around two years, according to a source familiar with the mine.
People sometimes enter abandoned mines in order to explore or to steal copper wire, McCray said, but officials don’t know why they entered. It is a crime to enter an abandoned mine no matter the intention, McCray said.
Justice said he met with the families at a community center.
“These families, friends, and the entire community are really hurting and need to be in our prayers. We also need to keep the mine rescue teams in our prayers as they attempt to pull off this rescue,” Justice said.