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Tunneling thwarted, a third hole to miners is planned

Tremors and debris badly impede diggers. A drill will reach for 'breeder' routes that the men may have fled to.

August 13, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times staff writer

huntington, utah -- As treacherous terrain brought the weeklong attempt to rescue six trapped miners to a virtual standstill, officials said Sunday that all they could do was bore another hole into the rock to look for the men and pray they were still alive.

Rescuers have found no trace of the miners since the cave-in Aug. 6. Two other holes found no signs of life, and they revealed that the air in the cavity where the miners had been working was toxic to breathe.

"Our attitude is we always have to have hope, and that's the position we're taking," said Richard E. Stickler, the federal official in charge of the Mine Safety and Health Administration. "We're hoping, and we're praying. That would be a terrible mistake, to give up hope."

Since the start, the rescue attempt has been a two-pronged process: drill small holes to send vital supplies and dig 2,000 feet to pull the men out.

Officials initially hoped they would finish their digging by Sunday. But persistent underground tremors and piles of debris have slowed the dig to a crawl. More seismic activity halted tunneling early Sunday, and after a week, rescuers are less than a third of the way to their goal.

"The conditions underground are very difficult," said Rob Moore, vice president of Murray Energy Corp., which owns the mine. "We are dealing with conditions that those who have been in the area 30 years have never encountered."

On Sunday, crews were clearing a road to bring a drill pad to the mountainside for boring the third hole. The shaft will have a nearly 9-inch-wide opening and will descend diagonally 1,440 feet to "breeder" tunnels where rescue workers think the miners might have fled. Workers will be able to drop in a camera, food and water.

The hole will be about 1,300 feet west of the first two holes, which were burrowed to a cavity where the miners were believed to be trapped. But there was no response when rescue workers pounded on the drill to alert the miners.

A camera dropped down the second hole Saturday night was able to see only 15 feet in the darkness. Some mining equipment could be spotted; there was no trace of the miners.

Authorities said it was possible the miners were still alive. Though the air in the cavity is not breathable, oxygen-rich areas exist in other parts of the mine. The camera also showed that potable water was running on the floor and that the ceiling had not collapsed in the work area, maintaining a 5 1/2 -foot void that Stickler called "survivable space."

Miners have survived lengthy periods trapped underground. In 1968, an unexpected flood in a West Virginia mine led authorities to believe 10 men were dead deep beneath the surface. But the miners were found alive after 10 days. Stickler said Sunday that he knew of a case in which miners survived 11 days. He did not give details.

Officials did not want to give a timeline, but it appears this rescue effort will pass the 10-day mark.

Stickler said rescue workers would begin drilling the third hole this morning. Robert E. Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy, said it could take three to four days to complete the dig.

It is still unknown why the mine collapsed. Seismologists registered a magnitude-3.9 tremor that they said was caused by the cave-in, but Murray said a separate quake triggered the disaster.

On Sunday, hundreds of local Mormons were in the midst of a two-day fast in support of the miners, and some relatives told reporters they were clinging to hope. Others said they were ready for the worst.

"I've accepted all possibilities," said Cody Allred, 32, whose father, Kerry, is trapped in the mine.

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nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com

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This report includes information from the Associated Press.

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