CUCUMBER, W.Va. -- Two members of a coal mining crew removing pillars in a mine died Saturday when a portion of the tunnel collapsed and the men were buried in debris deep underground, authorities said.
None of the other miners in the 35-member crew was injured, said Ted Pile, a spokesman for Alpha Natural Resources, whose subsidiary, Brooks Run Mining, operates the mine.
Pile said the crew was working on a process called retreat mining in which the miners work back toward the entrance extracting coal from the pillars that support the ceiling, Pile said.
Dispatchers said the accident scene was up to 1 1/2 miles beyond the entrance to the mine, about 90 miles west of Roanoke, Va.
Ron Wooten, director of the state Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training, said it was unclear whether a pillar or portion of the ceiling collapsed. He had earlier said the miners apparently were caught when a pillar fell.
Wooten said the bodies were taken to a hospital about 11 miles away in Welch. Their identities were not released.
The mine was closed following the fatal incident and would remain closed until regulators allow it to reopen, Pile said.
Additional details weren't immediately available. Wooten expected to learn more once a team of investigators returned from underground. Federal mine safety investigators were also on the scene.
The federal Mine Safety & Health Administration was "saddened by the tragic accident" and would work closely with the state to find out the cause, said agency director Richard Stickler.
The Brooks Run mine began operating in 2004. The fatalities were among the first at the mine. In October, a miner was killed in a wall collapse at Alpha's Whitetail Kittanning Mine in Newburg.
Alpha, based in Abingdon, Va., operates 66 mines in Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. Nationwide, it employs about 3,500 people, including 118 at the Brooks Run mine.
Federal inspectors cited the Brooks Run mine 65 times last year and proposed penalties totaling $5,000, according to the MSHA's Web site.
The deaths are the first in West Virginia's coal mines this year and the second and third in the nation. A miner was killed Jan. 6 at a Colorado mine, according to MSHA.
Last year, 47 miners -- 24 of them from West Virginia -- died in the nation's coal mines. The toll was the highest since 1995. The deaths included 12 men killed in an explosion at the Sago Mine in Upshur County. Also last January, two miners died in a fire at the Aracoma Alma No. 1 Mine in Logan County.
In China, an underground gas explosion in a coal mine killed 13 people and injured nine, a news report said Saturday. The cause of the blast was under investigation. China has the world's deadliest coal mines, with more than 5,000 fatalities a year in fires, floods and other disasters.