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Optimism erodes at Utah mine

A fourth hole finds unbreathable air, and officials aren't hopeful about a fifth. Relatives decry the pessimism.

August 20, 2007|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

huntington, utah -- Officials on Sunday all but declared dead six miners they have been trying to rescue for the last two weeks, after a fourth hole drilled to the area where the men might be trapped found insufficient oxygen to support life.

"It's likely that these miners might not be found," Rob Moore, a vice president of the company that owns the Crandall Canyon Mine, said at a midday news conference.

Later in the day, the miners' relatives expressed outrage. "We feel that they've given up and that they are just waiting for the six miners to expire," said Sonny Olsen, a spokesman for the families, reading from a prepared statement as about 70 relatives of the trapped miners stood behind him.

The pessimism was a marked change from previous statements in which officials expressed hope despite dwindling odds for the miners and a series of tragic setbacks. Three rescue workers were killed last week during a second cave-in, and instability underground had turned the frantic effort into a slow crawl.

But as recently as Saturday night, Moore had emphasized that "this continues to be a rescue effort," and urged people not to despair.

On Sunday, however, he refused to use the word "rescue."

Moore said the analysis of air from the 8-inch-wide hole is what changed his mind. No previous holes drilled into the mine found breathable air. Rescuers had hoped the latest hole, burrowed into a normally oxygen-rich "bleeder" tunnel, would find signs of life.

He and federal officials met with the families of the miners Sunday morning in a church on the edge of this remote mining town. "I'm sure you can imagine, it was a very difficult discussion," Moore said.

He said it was unclear whether the bodies of the miners could ever be recovered. Families, he said, wanted the effort to continue. "They're responding as any of us would respond," Moore said. "They want to see their loved ones again. I want to provide that. But I can't guarantee it."

Rescue workers are drilling a fifth hole, but Moore and Richard E. Stickler, director of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said it was likely to find the same conditions as the other four.

After the early-morning collapse Aug. 6, officials hoped to reach the miners through a two-pronged strategy: drilling narrow holes to send down food and water, and tunneling more than 2,000 feet to pull the men out.

But both prongs quickly encountered obstacles. The holes found unbreathable air and no signs of the miners. And the massive, 3 1/2 -mile-deep mine complex continued to shift and tremble, delaying the digging. When a sudden "bump" buried nine rescue workers under coal and rocks Thursday night, officials suspended all digging indefinitely. Three of the workers died; the others were injured.

A team of experts met Sunday morning to determine whether it would ever be possible to resume digging, but Moore was doubtful.

"We are not going to take any more unacceptable risks," he said.

Still, Moore said Murray Energy Corp. might reopen the parts of the mine unaffected by the collapse and continue to extract coal. He said that before the accident the mine had a sterling safety record.

Federal records show the mine was approved to perform "retreat mining," a potentially risky technique in which miners "pull" pillars of coal that had been left in room-and-pillar mining to extract the remaining mineral and speed out before the roof collapses.

Robert E. Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy, has denied that his men were performing retreat mining at the time of the cave-in. He blamed the collapse on an earthquake.

Seismologists registered a 3.9-magnitude event when the mine collapsed but believe it was caused by the cave-in. They have recorded more than 20 additional "bumps" since then, including Thursday's deadly collapse.

The grim news began to filter out as hundreds flocked to a park in the neighboring town of Price for a "Hope in the Dark" fundraiser for the families of the miners and rescue workers. Residents lined up to get yellow ribbons tied around their wrists as symbols of hope and to buy T-shirts commemorating the collapse. Musicians sang as hot dogs and hamburgers sizzled on grills, but the mood was somber.

"It's just so heartbreaking," said organizer Jeannette Marasco, 58. Her daughter-in-law's father is missing miner Kerry Allred. Marasco's brother-in-law suffered a broken pelvis and ribs and a blood clot in his brain in the second cave-in.

Debbie Stone, 57, a cousin of Allred's, lost her husband in a mine accident 30 years ago. She said the last two weeks' events had shaken her deeply.

"It's so sad, because you want to cling to hope," she said, adding that she has been pessimistic for the last week. Still, one of her friends was a rescue worker injured in the second collapse, and she said he wanted to go back in and continue digging.

Price Mayor Joe Piccolo was taken aback by the officials' pessimism and suggestions that the bodies might stay underground. "I think it's premature not to look any longer," he said.

He refused to give up hope.

"We want a miracle," Piccolo said. "Miracles happen."


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