Rescue team completes search of mine in Boone; missing man not found

State officials say a rescue crew searched an abandoned coal mine Thursday for Wes Blackburn, but it did not find the missing man. (Family Courtesy Photo)

Rescuers completed their search inside a Boone County mine and did not find a missing man who deputies said is suspected of stealing copper.

Members of the West Virginia Mine Rescue Team went into a mine Thursday morning in Boone County to help locate Wes Blackburn, 38, of Oceana, who is being sought by law enforcement. He was not found inside the mine Thursday, officials said.

A news release from Samantha Smith, director of marketing and communications for the West Virginia Department of Commerce, said the three-member rescue team withdrew from the Lightfoot No. 1 Blackhawk Mine near Wharton about 1:30 p.m. after it encountered hazards that prevented the team from safely continuing to explore the mine.

On Wednesday, officers were unsure if he was inside the abandoned mine or not. The decision to search inside the mine was made late Wednesday after ground efforts by law enforcement were exhausted.

“At 9 a.m. this morning, our office will lead a joint effort with Blackhawk Mining to enter the mine and start the exploration process underground for the missing man,” said Eugene White, director of MHST in a news release from the West Virginia Department of Commerce.

The abandoned Blackhawk mine is located near Wharton in Boone County. It was closed in 1998 and has been sealed, the release said.

A team of three individuals was equipped with full safety apparatus that included breathing packs, according to officials. The team is made up of two members from the West Virginia Office of Miners' Health, Safety and Training and one from Blackhawk Mining.

“When operations cease and a mine is sealed, conditions can deteriorate very quickly,” White said. “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.”

Boone County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Chad Barker said two people, Amanda Pennington and Gary Gibson, were arrested Monday evening near the mine entrance. Criminal complaints filed in Boone County Magistrate Court show Pennington, a resident of Glenn Rogers, was arrested on a conspiracy charge, and Gibson, a resident of Oceana, on conspiracy and breaking and entering charges.

The complaint said that a deputy responded about 1 p.m. Monday to a possible mine theft at Wells Mine Complex. A witness who said he saw a car on the property and suspected someone may be inside the mine. The deputy spoke to Pennington, who said she was only there to pick up Blackburn and Gibson. The deputy said he asked if the men were inside the mine, and she said she didn’t know where they were.

After explaining to her the dangers of being inside a coal mine without proper ventilation, the deputy said, Pennington said the men were inside. The deputy said the mine was sealed off until the two men busted through a concrete barrier. It also was posted with no trespassing signs. The complaint said it was believed the two men were taking copper cable.

The AP contributed to this story.

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