As Day 11 dawned for rescue efforts at the Emery County mine, friends and relatives of the missing were buoyed by reports that two sensitive listening devices positioned in different places above the mine detected noise underground for a five-minute period after the borehole initially pierced the tunnel at 10:10 a.m. Wednesday.
Four other "geophones" positioned around the mountain did not pick up the noise, which was recorded as spikes on graph paper. No additional spikes have been heard since that five-minute period.
"We're not sure what that means," said federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) director Richard Stickler at a 7 p.m. news conference. "That has created a very small amount of hope and optimism [among the families]. And that's my reaction."
Stickler cautioned that geophones - microseismic instruments that can detect weak or distant sounds and were used to look for victims of the World Trade Center collapse on Sept. 11, 2001 - have never been found useful in locating miners in a mine.
"But we have experiments where we went into idle operations and did a test where we could pick up a signal 2,000 feet below the surface," he added. A report Stickler wrote in June noted that MSHA's seismic detection equipment is based on 26-year-old technology and is accurate to within 50 to 100 feet.
Computer-generated mathematical computations indicated the vague noises originated about 520 feet from where the third borehole pierced the bleeder tunnel earlier in the day.
That projection gave rescue organizers additional impetus to get video and sound equipment lowered down the borehole in hopes of seeing or hearing anything of the six missing miners - Manuel Sanchez, Don Erickson, Luis Alonso Hernandez, Kerry Allred, Juan Carlos Payan and Brandon Phillips.
But because the borehole drifted as it was sunk and had to be redirected, a bend was created that delayed the ability to get the camera into the mine until Wednesday evening.
When the camera finally slid through, Murray said it did show a "brattice curtain," a thick tarp used to control ventilation, hanging in the tunnel not far from the borehole. He did not know whether the curtain was there from earlier mining work or might have been erected by the men missing since the mine's wall collapse on Aug. 6.
Rescue organizers are theorizing the miners, finding their direct routes out blocked by massive cave-ins from the mine's walls, retreated to the back of the mine where breathable air was likely to accumulate, and that they used brattice curtains to prevent the oxygen-deficient air released in the collapse from coming in.
In studying mine maps, Stickler said, rescue organizers determined that more permanent ventilation control walls between pillars of coal would have made that a logical place for the trapped miners to build a barricade.
The concussion from the initial collapse blew out hundreds of these ventilation control walls closer to the surface of the mine. Stickler said he has no evidence that the walls in the bleeder section withstood that seismic event.
Late Wednesday, preparations were being made to lower air sampling equipment through the borehole to see if the atmosphere in the bleeder tunnel was capable of sustaining life.
Stickler also said the noise finding prompted organizers to move their planned location for a fourth drill hole to the area where the noise was heard.
Mine co-owner Robert Murray said that even if the borehole verifies people are still alive, getting them out of the mine still will require unclogging 1,600 feet of a fresh-air tunnel filled with rubble from the initial collapse. About 800 feet has been cleared so far.
That effort sustained a setback early Wednesday when another seismic "bounce" shot blocks of coal into the mining machine cutting through the rubble, knocking it out of service for two to three hours.
Shortly thereafter, Murray brought out Bodee Allred, the Crandall Canyon mine's safety director and cousin of missing miner Kerry Allred. He has been supervising efforts to reclaim that tunnel.
"Make no mistake, it's definitely trying every time you're in there," Allred said. "You have to be on your toes. You have to be alert. That's what coal mining is."
But even if the installation of extra roof and wall-support structures takes considerable time, Allred said rescuers have no other choice - and the missing miners know that.
"I know these men well," he said. "I know they would not appreciate us taking any chances. They know damn well that we're doing what we can do to get to them and we're going to get there - no doubt about it."
Allred shook off questions about the fact 12 miners had asked to be taken off work in the tunnel and had been reassigned to other rescue-operation duties, which overall involve more than 200 Murray Energy Corp. employees.
"These individuals that feel uncomfortable, have certain reasons. It just ain't setting well with them. That's understandable," he said. "This effort ain't all at the face. This effort starts from the surface, it starts from downtown all the way up here. Them men are needed as much [on the surface] . . . and that's where they're at. And they're doing a helluva job. Ain't none of these guys are not willing to do everything they can."
And, Allred said, he believes the missing miners are still alive. "They're very tough men," he said.
When a reporter asked Allred if he was in the mine when the walls collapsed on Aug. 6, Murray pulled him away from the microphones and said the interview was over.
* PATTY HENETZ contributed to this report.