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Setbacks in rescue begin to dampen hopes for miners' survival

August 11, 2007|Ashley Powers and Lynn Marshall | Times Staff Writers

HUNTINGTON, UTAH - — After another day without communication from six men trapped under 1,800 feet of rock and coal, mining experts on Friday said the chance that they were still alive had dropped to "50/50."

"We are not to the point yet where there is no hope," said Robert Ferriter, a professor at the Colorado School of Mines. But as times goes by, "it gets more complicated. . . . The temperature down there is about 55 degrees and hypothermia could set in."

The frantic rescue effort launched after the early Monday cave-in suffered a setback when officials discovered that a 2 ½-inch drill had missed the mine cavity where the men were thought to be trapped. Instead, the drill had entered an area near where the miners had been working. Readings showed there was not enough oxygen there to support life. A microphone lowered down the hole picked up no sounds.

Bleary-eyed rescuers late Friday were attempting to drill a nearly 9-inch hole into Crandall Canyon Mine to slide down a small video camera with a 100-foot range, as well as to supply the miners with food, water and oxygen. "If they get in the cavity and are able to hear something -- a miner beating on a pipe, something like that -- that would be definitive," Ferriter said.

Rescuers tunneling horizontally toward the miners still may be a week from reaching them.

Family members have identified the trapped men as Kerry Allred, 58; Don Erickson, 50; Carlos Payan, Luis Hernandez and Arturo "Manuel" Sanchez. Local media identified the sixth man as Brandon Phillips.

"During this moment, we feel the loving presence of God in the midst of our pain," the Payan, Hernandez and Sanchez families said in a statement Friday.

"It is not so much a matter of having a good day or a bad day," said Father Don Hope, a priest who has counseled the families. "It gets to the point of having a good hour or a bad hour as they continue to await the latest news from the mine."

So far the news has not been good. On Monday, rescuers failed to break through old seals in parallel passageways to reach the men. Then early Tuesday, coal and debris rained down on the rescuers and damaged ventilation ducts. Since tunneling resumed Wednesday, rescuers have cleared through about 400 feet.

"It's like a see-saw. You've got to believe that they're alive and pressure the company to do everything possible to find them," said William Estrada, 38, who worked as a coal miner for several years and knows Hernandez and Payan.

In previous accidents, miners have been able to last several days. In 1968, six men survived underground for 10 days in a West Virginia mine. Four years later, two Idaho miners walked out after eight days.

"Right now, I'd say their odds are 50/50," Bruce Dial of Dial Mine Safety said of the Huntington miners. "If they get the camera down there and don't see anything, I'd cut those in half."

Banners in small towns throughout Utah's coal country urged hope and prayer. Residents gathered in Huntington on Friday night for a vigil -- the second this week. Fliers being handed out throughout town read: "Six men all in a dark you can feel. . . six families not knowing if their daddies, husbands and sons are going to make it out alive."

News of their fate may still be days away.

"I think these holes are the first, and the fastest effort," said Michael McCarter, a University of Utah professor of mining engineering. "But the real search is the opening of the mine -- that is going to tell us what happened to these men."

Powers reported from Utah, Marshall from Seattle. Times staff writer Nicholas Riccardi in Utah contributed to this report.

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