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Efforts to rescue miners suspended

Six may remain trapped for a week or longer because the ground is too unstable.

August 08, 2007|Ashley Powers and David Zucchino | Times Staff Writers

HUNTINGTON, UTAH — Underground instability forced an abrupt halt late Tuesday to all efforts to rescue six trapped miners, pushing the timetable for reaching the men from three days to more than a week "at the earliest," the chairman of the company that operates Crandall Canyon Mine said.

Citing seismic activity and dangerous conditions, Robert E. Murray said all rescue work mounted since shortly after a section of the mine collapsed Monday morning had been "wiped out."

"We are back to square one underground," Murray, chairman of Murray Energy Corp. of Cleveland, told reporters in a somber tone. He said rescuers should know within two to three days whether the men were alive.

Rescue teams planned to use a sensitive sonar listening device that might help them determine the miners' status, officials said. They planned to set off three dynamite blasts and wait for the men to pound on the mine ceiling, as they had been trained to do. The device would register any response from deep inside the mine, noises not normally audible at ground level.

Murray said the miners had headlamps and should have enough air to last for days, but safety experts said there was no way to know for sure whether air flowing through the mine was reaching the men.

Workers were planning to drill two narrow holes into a mountainside in an attempt to create a means of communication, as well as possibly providing air, food and water, Murray said.

Murray said the missing miners, who have not been publicly named, were in their 20s, 30s or 40s. Four miners working with them escaped, officials said.

Shifting coal and debris have bedeviled the rescue operation in the vast mine. About 1:30 a.m. Tuesday, debris rained down, effectively blocking a route toward the miners. Rescuers were pulled out about 4 a.m., said Allyn C. Davis, a district manager for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

Officials are using several tactics to reach them: digging by more than 130 miners; drilling with a large rig; and bulldozing roads in the forest so rescuers can cart in an even larger rig. Murray said the effort was "exhaustive" but "too slow."

Rescuers have punched through more than 300 feet since the mine collapse early Monday but began about 2,000 feet away from their trapped comrades.

"I don't know whether these miners are alive or dead -- only the Lord knows that," Murray said. "But it's up to Bob Murray and my management to get access to them as quickly as we can.

"I will not leave this mine until there has been a rescue," he said.

City leaders in this small mining community, about 140 miles south of Salt Lake City, braced for an agonizing wait. Outsiders don't realize how unwieldy the rescue operation is, Mayor Hilary Gordon said, "until you're up there and have seen the enormity of trying to move mountain and rocks."

Gordon visited the trapped miners' relatives Tuesday morning, serving 40 to 50 people bananas, doughnuts and coffee. Family members were at the local junior high school, guarded by armed law enforcement officers. Mining officials delivered regular updates.

"There's a lot of truth in the old saying that no news is good news," Gordon said, describing the families' mood.

Julie Jones, a Huntington city councilwoman, got an early morning call Monday about the collapse and feared for her son, who worked at the Crandall mine.

Hours passed, then relief. Her son, Elam, 23, walked through the door after his 12-hour shift. He described miners digging frantically with their hands in failed attempts to reach their friends, she said.

But even with her son safe, Jones said, her thoughts are weighted by the miners trapped deep inside the earth in this arid patch of central Utah.

In Huntington, whose existence is intertwined with coal, the mine collapse touches most everyone. Cousins, brothers, grandfathers and uncles have subsisted on what's known locally as "black gold."

Jones' husband mined coal for three decades.

"This is what our guys do. This is what our community does," Jones said.

On Tuesday, Jones told reporters she wanted people to "pray and think for the best."

Her voice breaking and her eyes watering, she said of the trapped miners: "They are a team -- they are a family. It's family. We don't have to know them. It's a coal mine."

Murray continued to say Tuesday that an earthquake caused the collapse, challenging reports from the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colo., that the powerful cave-in triggered seismic activity that mimicked an earthquake. During a morning news conference, Murray raised his voice and forcefully told reporters: "There's no blame. This is a natural disaster.

"This was caused by an earthquake, not something Murray Energy . . . did or our employees did or our management did. . . . And I'm going to prove it to you."

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