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A race to save trapped miners

Holes are being drilled to provide air, food and water in hopes the six men deep underground are still alive.

August 09, 2007|Ashley Powers and Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writers

HUNTINGTON, UTAH — Grim-faced rescue workers covered with coal dust drilled halfway toward six miners trapped 1,500 feet underground Wednesday, as family members continued their agonizing wait for any survivors of Monday's cave-in.

"I have full faith they are in there alive and breathing," said mine safety supervisor Bodee Allred, his voice trembling. His cousin is one of the trapped miners.

The Crandall Canyon Mine collapsed early Monday, and persistent seismic rumblings stalled rescue efforts until Wednesday morning. Officials said they drilled a 2-inch-wide hole 875 feet deep and believe it will pierce the casing of the cavity that holds the miners, enabling them to find out whether the men are alive. They were also drilling a second, 8-inch-wide hole to supply them with air, food and water.

Sonic monitoring equipment has picked up no sign of tapping to indicate the workers are alive. The men cannot be extracted for a week at the earliest, and if the holes are drilled at an incorrect angle, they could hit solid rock rather than the space where the miners are trapped, said Robert E. Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy Corp., which owns the mine.

Murray said the holes may reach the miners in 48 hours or less. He remained optimistic that the workers would survive if the holes reached them.

"They can survive underground indefinitely . . . indefinitely," he said during an evening news conference. "We can provide everything they need . . . including a toothbrush and a comb."

Residents of this tightly knit region distributed fliers urging residents to attend upcoming vigils for the trapped miners. In an area where an estimated 90% of all jobs are in the energy industry, most residents know the affected families and can picture themselves or their loved ones in the same situation.

"I don't think there is a family that isn't impacted in some way," Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon said.

Some family members began to voice frustration with the slow rescue operation. The company has rented the local junior high school and secluded relatives there. Murray has advised them not to speak to reporters, and sheriff's deputies are guarding the building.

Maria Buenrostro, whose brother Manuel Sanchez is one of the trapped miners, told the Associated Press that Murray got angry with relatives' questions and walked out of a meeting. She added that there was no interpreter provided for three Spanish-speaking families.

"We want the truth; that's all we want," said Buenrostro. "If there's nothing that they can do about it, you know, just tell us so we know what to expect when they bring them out."

Murray took two relatives down into the mine for an afternoon tour and pledged to distribute bilingual information. "The families are doing incredibly well, given the circumstances," said Rob Moore, a vice president with Murray Energy. Though officials still refuse to release the names of the trapped miners, friends and families began to confirm some identities Wednesday. In addition to Sanchez, relatives confirmed that the group includes Don Erickson and Kerry Allred.

Allred's relatives are typical of the generations of mining families that have populated this high-desert area for a century. Lee Cratsenburg, one of Allred's many cousins and a former mine worker herself, said relatives worked in local mines as far back as 1912. Relatives say Allred's son, a mining veteran, accompanied Murray on a tour of the mine Wednesday, while another cousin, Bodee, supervised the rescue work above.

Cratsenburg said she believed her cousin's three decades of mining experience had prepared him to survive. "I'm sure he's going to be OK," she said. "He's been in enough mines."

"Kerry's the roughest one out of the whole bunch, because he's getting close to retirement," said family friend Paul Simmons of the father of three.

Simmons said that Allred's children were having a difficult time with the uncertainty over whether their father was alive. "It's happened before. Guys have made it," he said. "But it's so few and so rare."

Utah is the 12th-largest coal-producing state in the nation, and all 13 of its coal mines are located within the broad, sagebrush-studded expanses of Emery and Carbon counties in central Utah where Crandall is located. Unlike mines in the eastern U.S., coal in the West is lodged deep underground, which is more expensive to extract. David A. Litvin, president of the Utah Mining Assn., said the state's coal was "the deepest in the U.S., going down as much as 3,000 feet."

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