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Officials suspend search for Utah miners

August 18, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi, Judy Pasternak and Stephen Braun | Times Staff Writers

HUNTINGTON, UTAH — The deaths of three rescuers caught in an explosive coal blowout while digging toward a team of trapped miners left this mining region torn Friday over how to proceed as federal officials suspended their disastrous underground search.

Shaken by setbacks in the rescue effort and then by the catastrophic "seismic bump" that caused the tragedy Thursday night, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. urged the rescue team to "send no one else into that mine until they can guarantee their safety."

Federal officials said they had braced the underground rescue tunnel as strongly as possible against cave-ins caused by subterranean jolts. During a news conference near the Crandall Canyon Mine, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration Director Richard E. Stickler said officials would reassess the rescue attempt before renewing the search for six miners trapped in coal dust and darkness since Aug. 6.

Officials with the mine said they were determined to press on. "We will move forward with that effort," said Rob Moore, vice president of Murray Energy Corp., which owns the mine.

But anguished relatives of victims wondered aloud whether it was time to abandon the search, especially because there had been no indication the trapped miners were still alive. "I had two brother-in-laws in the mine last night," said Shellee Allred, a member of an extended family whose miner sons were caught in both cave-ins. "So many people putting their lives at risk with no proof of life."

In Huntington, many residents have held out hope through 12 days of raised and dashed expectations. Searchers have drilled three holes into East Mountain, as far as 1,300 feet through its sandstone and limestone layers. But the drilling attempts, aimed at finding the trapped men and providing food and water until they could be dug out, found only uninhabited coal seams. A fourth bore hole is now underway from the peak.

On Friday night, nearly a day after a federal mining official and two local searchers were killed and six rescuers were injured in the collapse, local spirits were crushed.

Jeremiah Jackson, 31, who works at another of the area's mountainside mines, spoke tersely, voice quavering, while he shopped for plastic piping at a Huntington co-op.

"I've got people I know who're underground, trapped, and I'd like to get them out," he said, eyes hidden by a clamped-down baseball cap. "But on the other hand, I don't want anyone else to get hurt."

Federal officials acknowledged they couldn't assure the safety of search teams inside the mountain, which has been plagued by the sudden, massive shifts of earth that miners call "mountain bumps."

Stickler said his team planned to meet with mining experts in the next several days "face to face, and ask ourselves: Is there any possible way that we can continue this underground operation and provide the safety for the rescue workers?"

One option under consideration is rebracing the collapsed tunnel with steel arches to reinforce the coal pillars holding up the interior ceiling. The idea was broached by Keith A. Heasley, a mining engineering professor at West Virginia University whom federal mining officials consulted before they launched the underground effort to reach the trapped men.

Heasley is expected to fly today to the remote mountainside base. The operative question, Heasley said, is: "Is there a safe way to do this?"

In a mining town, the notion of abandoning lost miners is akin to soldiers leaving comrades on the battlefield. But even as Huntsman referred to the three rescuers who died as heroes, he edged toward that bleak possibility Friday: "I don't know that much will be done below until we can guarantee worker safety."

The deadly cave-in occurred at 6:39 p.m. MDT Thursday as diggers reached 800 feet inside the collapsed mine. Heasley said the blowout occurred just as the rescue team approached a critical point inside the tunnel where much of the pressure inside the mountain bears down.

"All these pillars had already bumped once when the miners were trapped," he said. "And that pushes coal into the entry. But at the same time, that coal props up the pillar and they had to remove it again. In doing that, they're taking some support away from the pillar that's left."

Appearing awed by the force of the tunnel collapse, Stickler said Friday that a pressurized coal pillar inside the tunnel simply blew apart, spewing out 30 feet of coal. "When that energy gets released," Stickler said, "it's like an explosion," which in this case left some rescuers buried under "2 to 3 feet of material."

Stunned workers rushed in, frantic to save the men. "It was chaotic," searcher Donnie Leonard told Utah television station KUTV. Hauling oxygen tanks and stretchers, his team "remained as calm as possible."

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