UPDATE | Recovery team attempts new search of Boone County mine after man's 2018 disappearance

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BOONE COUNTY, W.Va. (WSAZ/WV MetroNews) -- UPDATE 9/4/19 @ 3:15 p.m.
A recovery team attempted a search Wednesday for a man believed to be inside a Boone County mine after disappearing in 2018. However, the team ran into conditions that caused them to turn back around and end their efforts.

Investigators say Wes Blackburn, 38, of Oceana, West Virginia, entered the Blackhawk mine with the intention of stealing copper. His family reported him missing in November of 2018.

The former mine closed in 1998 and was sealed. Blackburn reportedly went into the sealed mine with another man who made it out safely.

West Virginia State Police received new information about the disappearance which led to a crew going back into the mine Wednesday.

A team from the West Virginia Office of Mine Safety and Training (MHS&T) used power tools to unseal the mine around 11 a.m. Wednesday. They made it about 80 feet into the mine, which took about a half-hour, before they came upon "impassable conditions" and had to turn around. Along the way, they found no signs of Blackburn.

Representatives from Blackhawk Mining joined the MHS&T crew for the search at the Wharton mine.

Rescuers tried to search for Blackburn around the mine complex when he was first reported missing, but the conditions, including several roof collapses, were too dangerous.

In December of 2018, Blackburn's family protested outside of the Boone County Courthouse. They questioned the state's response and whether investigators were doing enough. It angered his loved ones that crews rescued three people from a Raleigh County mine while Blackburn was still missing.

"The Office of Miners’ Health, Safety and Training reminds West Virginians that abandoned mines are extremely dangerous and that no unauthorized person should ever attempt to enter an abandoned mine," a press release states.

UPDATE 12/20/19 @ 9:55 p.m.
Efforts to locate a man whose family believes he is still inside a mine in Boone County have been exhausted, according to a report from state officials on Thursday.

Agencies including West Virginia State Police, the Boone County Sheriff's Department, and the office of Miners Health Safety, as well as the company that owns the mine, all say that conditions inside the Blackhawk Mine are too dangerous to send crews back underground.

Crews went into the mine Nov. 29 to search for Wes Blackburn. They encountered several roof falls that prevented safe travel for the rescuers.

Blackburn's family has questioned the response by the state following the rescue of three other people inside a mine in Raleigh County last week.



UPDATE 12/19/18 @ 10:50 p.m.
A prayer vigil was held Wednesday night for a man who went missing 24 days ago in a Boone County mine.

Investigators say Wes Blackburn entered the mine with the intention of stealing copper. While the man he was with was able to exit safely, Blackburn never came out.

Wednesday's prayer service took place at Christ Community Church in Jesse, West Virginia.

Just two days ago, family and friends protested outside the Boone County Courthouse in Madison. They wanted to remind people that while the three people in Raleigh County were rescued, Blackburn remains missing.

A search for him a few hours after he went missing ended because of a roof collapse.



UPDATE 12/19/18 @ 10:45 a.m.
Family and friends have planned a prayer service for a missing man believed to be inside an abandoned mine in Boone County.

It's been 24 days since Wes Blackburn went into an abandoned mine with the intention of stealing copper. The man he was with exited the mine safely, but Wes never came out.

A prayer service for Blackburn and his family will be at Christ Community Church (formerly the New Life Community Church) in Jesse, West Virginia. Family members tell us everyone is welcome.

The service will be at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Just two days ago, family and friends protested outside the Boone County Courthouse in Madison. They wanted to remind people Monday that Blackburn is still missing.

A mine rescue team went underground to search for Blackburn for a few hours shortly after he went missing. However, the search ended because a roof collapse created unsafe conditions for the rescue team.

Blackburn disappeared two weeks before four people illegally entered a mine in Raleigh County. One man was able to make it to safety on his own, but the other three were trapped for four days. State rescue teams went to great lengths to find the trio, and loved ones say it isn't fair that more effort wasn't put towards finding Blackburn.

The Boone County Sheriff's Department has also received tips saying Wes Blackburn is missing, but not in the abandoned mine. His family members say that could be a possibility, but also say Blackburn would not go this long without coming back to his family.

UPDATE 12/18/18 @ 12:05 a.m.
The people who love and miss Wes Blackburn stood outside the Boone County Courthouse Monday afternoon in Madison, with signs to remind people that he is still missing.

"We feel that there wasn't enough effort put into really trying to find Wes," Shawn Clark said.

Monday marked 22 days since Wes went into an abandoned mine in Boone County with the intention of stealing copper. The man he was with exited the mine safely. Wes never came out.

A mine rescue team went underground to search for Wes for a few hours shortly after he went missing. However, the search ended because a roof collapse created unsafe conditions for the rescue team.

Wes disappeared two weeks before four people entered a mine in Raleigh County. One man was able to make it to safety on his own. The other three were trapped for four days. State rescue teams went to great lengths to find the trio.

"I'm thankful that they found them," Clark said. "I would never wish any harm on anybody but when you see all the help that they were given and the resources that they were given to try to find those people ... it's not fair."

The Boone County Sheriff's Department has also received tips saying Wes Blackburn is missing, but not in the abandoned mine.

His family says that could be a possibility, but also says Wes would not go this long without coming back to his family.

They are hoping to get more help searching that mine.

WSAZ reached out to the state of West Virginia to learn more about rescue efforts for Wes, but our calls were not returned.

We will keep trying.



UPDATE 11/29/18 @ 3:30 p.m.
A search for a man reported missing in a Boone County coal mine has been completed, the county sheriff's department says Thursday afternoon.

The missing man was identified as Wes Blackburn of Oceana. In addition to the search, there’s an active warrant for his arrest.

Another man, identified as Gary Gibson of Oceana, was arrested and charged with breaking and entering.

Investigators say they didn't find anything during Thursday's search. Gibson had told investigators that Blackburn was with him and later vanished.

We spoke with Blackburn's mother, Joanne Short who says even though the official search is over, she won't be giving up. "I won't give up until I hear from him because if someone says they see him somewhere, I'll go look until he is found, one way or another," she said.

Safety officials also say the rescue team could not search the entire mine because they came across a roof collapse and it was too dangerous to go past it.

There is no word at this time if the search will resume at a later date. Keep checking the WSAZ App and WSAZ.com for the latest information.



UPDATE 11/29/18 @ 11:35 a.m.
A team is going into an abandoned Boone County coal mine today to search for a missing man, risking their own safety.

The missing man was identified as Wes Blackburn of Oceana. In addition to the search, there’s an active warrant for his arrest.

“I can’t confirm he’s in there,” said Boone County Chief Deputy Chad Barker, reiterating that Blackburn’s location remains unknown.

Members of the West Virginia Mine Rescue Team were being mobilized this morning to search for the man at the abandoned Blackhawk mine near Wharton, Boone County.

“At 9 a.m., our office will lead a joint effort with Blackhawk Mining to enter the mine and start the exploration process underground for the missing man,” stated Eugene White, director of the West Virginia Office of Miner’s Health, Safety and Training.

The decision to go in was made late Wednesday after above ground efforts by law enforcement to locate the missing man were exhausted.

The team of three rescuers, comprised of two members from MHST and one from Blackhawk Mining, will be equipped with full safety apparatus, including breathing packs.

Officials spent time reviewing maps of the mine, but conditions inside the mine, which closed in 1998 and has been sealed, are unknown.

“When operations cease and a mine is sealed, conditions can deteriorate very quickly,” White stated in a news release.

“Roof falls, toxic levels of gas, flooding and other dangers may exist. We will take every measure possible to ensure the safety of the rescuers entering the mine.”

The situation has been unfolding since early this week.

The issue arose Monday when a woman later identified as Amanda Pennington of Oceana was found parked on mine property. Officials approached to ask why she was there.

“This lady was confused and said her friends were in the abandoned mine,” White said in a MetroNews interview.

“The company, Blackhawk mining, found where the mine seal had been breached and there was evidence of people going in it.”

The Boone County Sheriff’s Department then got involved. Not long after that, one of the men exited the mine.

“They arrested him. He said ‘My buddy was with me and I don’t know where he went.’

That man was identified as Gary Gibson of Oceana.

He was charged with breaking and entering. Pennington was charged with conspiracy.

“They were trying to steal copper,” said Chief Deputy Barker of Boone County.

“It’s really, really a terrible idea. That’s probably the understatement of the year.”

Barker described the two men, with the aid of Pennington, going in and out of the mine, sometimes becoming separated and sometimes having some time gaps.

Because they weren’t always together, because some time passed between their visits and because there are multiple potential exits from the mine, it’s unclear if Blackburn is even in there.

“It’s really a person that’s missing,” MHST Director White said Wednesday. “We don’t know for sure if he’s underground or if he’s out somewhere in the community running around.”



ORIGINAL STORY 11/28/18
State mine safety officials are considering going into an abandoned coal mine near Wharton, Boone County, to search for a man who reportedly entered it with another man.

“One gentleman did come out of the mine,” said Eugene White, director of the state Office of Miners’ Health Safety and Training. “They arrested him. He said ‘My buddy was with me and I don’t know where he went.’"

“It’s really a person that’s missing. We don’t know for sure if he’s underground or if he’s out somewhere in the community running around.”

The former Blackhawk mine closed in 1998 and had been sealed, White said.

The Miners’ Health Safety and Training agency doesn’t have jurisdiction, but it does have expertise.

What officials must weigh, White said, is whether searching for the missing man is worth the risks that potential rescuers would face.

“This mine has been sealed for quite a while,” he said. “You’ve got potential roof falls. You have potential dangerous gas levels. Water. You don’t know what you’re running into with a mine that’s been sealed.

“We’re evaluating now to see what my occur. We’re hoping that he sometime today surfaces and we don’t have to think of sending someone in an abandoned mine.”

The issue arose Monday when a woman parked on mine property, White said. Officials approached to ask why she was there.

“This lady was confused and said her friends were in the abandoned mine,” White said.

“The company, Blackhawk mining, found where the mine seal had been breached and there was evidence of people going in it.”

The Boone County Sheriff’s Department then got involved. Not long after that, one of the men exited the mine.

Officials, including those from the mine safety agency, gathered at the mine on Tuesday night to assess the situation. They intended to gather again in today’s daylight.

White wasn’t certain yet about the depth of the mine or its layout.

“That’s one of the things today, we’ll be getting some maps and looking at them and determining where everything is,” he said.

Then officials will have to determine whether to go in.

“There is a lot of potential danger to our employees if we elect to go in the mine. The people you’re looking for you don’t know what kind of state of mind they’re in or the danger they may present to us.

“We understand the humane thing is, it is a human life. That’s where we are thinking about making the determination of what we want to do as an agency.”




 
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