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Hope for rescue improves as dangerous gas levels drop

MONTCOAL, W. Va. - Levels of noxious gas dropped yesterday in a coal mine where 25 workers died in an explosion, giving rescuers hope that they might be able to get inside soon to look for four still missing.

Teams spent more than four hours working their way through the Upper Big Branch mine by rail car and on foot in the morning, but had to turn back because of an explosive mix of gases in the area they needed to search.

Crews at the surface resumed drilling in an effort to get fresh air into the mine. Gov. Joe Manchin said in the evening that the levels were near those considered safe. Rescue teams had made it within 500 feet of an airtight chamber with four days worth of food, water and oxygen where they hoped the miners might have sought refuge Monday in the worst U.S. mining disaster in two decades.

Chris Adkins, chief operating officer for mine owner Massey Energy Co., said the rescue teams were angry when told to abandon the mission, but their safety was paramount. He said the teams are off their feet and resting, but too anxious to sleep.

Massey's chief executive officer, Don Blankenship, continued to defend his company's record and disputed accusations from miners that he puts coal profits ahead of safety.

There were 61 miners in Upper Big Branch when it was rocked by the blast.

Despite the increasingly slim chance of finding anyone alive, Adkins said he considered the effort a rescue mission.

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