Hopes of finding alive 13 coal miners trapped nearly two miles underground in West Virginia faded on Tuesday after rescuers could find no signs of life.
The miners were trapped after a blast early on Monday. Rescue teams were only able to enter the Sago Mine more than 11 hours after the explosion because of dangerous levels of carbon monoxide.
The blast has raised questions about the mine’s safety record. Shares of International Coal Group, which owns the mine and is headed by Wilbur Ross, the billionaire US investor, closed down 1.5 per cent at $9.36 in New York on Tuesday.
It is not clear what caused the explosion, although there was speculation lightning may have ignited gases. The mine had been closed over the weekend for the New Year holiday.
Ben Hatfield, ICG’s chief executive, on Tuesday said air quality tests showed more than three times the safe limit of carbon monoxide – which could not sustain life. “We are very discouraged by the results of this test,” he told a news briefing.
He said a camera lowered into a part of the mine showed no signs of life and no substantial damage. But he added the miners could still be alive.
“They could be in another location or they could be barricaded somewhere,” he told reporters.
ICG was formed in May 2004 when Mr Ross, who specialises in taking stakes in out-of-favour industries, led a group that bought key assets from the bankruptcy estate of Horizon Natural Resources.
ICG acquired the Sago Mine last March when it bought Anker Coal Group.
Federal inspectors cited the mine for 46 alleged violations of federal mine health and safety rules during an 11-week review that ended on December 22, the Associated Press reported.
The mine was given citations from the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) during 2005, up from 68 citations received a year earlier.
Scott McClellan, White House spokesman, said the federal government was assisting in efforts to rescue the miners and President George W. Bush was being briefed regularly.
The MSHA has dispatched mine safety specialists and other rescue personnel to the site. On Monday it pledged it would “conduct a thorough examination of this accident and produce a report to educate the mining community in a effort to prevent this type of accident from happening in the future”.
ICG did not return calls seeking comment.