After being lowered one-third of a mile down a borehole that previously pierced the Crandall Canyon mine, a robotic camera encountered a roadblock Monday night. The ground had shifted. The shaft was no longer straight. The robot could go no farther in its search for a sign, any sign, of six coal miners trapped deep underground Aug. 6 when the mountain moved violently, causing the mine's walls to implode.
"Very disappointing," Jack Kuzar, a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration district manager helping to run the rescue operation, said Tuesday evening after briefing the miners' families about the latest in a long line of setbacks. "But as I indicated the other night, this is a long shot."
His only consolation - the robot was retrieved from the shaft undamaged.
MSHA now plans to lower it down a borehole currently being drilled from the mountaintop toward an area nicknamed the "dinner hole" or "kitchen." That is simply a crosscut where miners eat their lunches, but also a likely gathering point for an escape if the missing miners had any time to react to the massive meltdown of the mine's tunnels before the section was exposed to deadly, oxygen-deficient air released from other sections mined years ago.
Borehole No. 7 was started about 4 a.m. Tuesday. The 1,800-foot shaft is expected to reach its target late today or early Thursday, Kuzar said.
If successfully lowered through that borehole, the robot can be maneuvered by remote control, its two cameras providing rescue organizers with real-time video of what remains of the mine's internal workings and, possibly, some evidence of the whereabouts of the missing six - Don Erickson, Juan Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips, Luis Alonso Hernandez, Kerry Allred and Manuel Sanchez.
Twenty-two days after the collapse, hope that they may be alive has been all but abandoned.
Nevertheless, the victims' relatives are not quite ready to move on, said Edward Havas, a Salt Lake City attorney whose firm is representing several of the families. "Our people are not unrealistic. They know the score. But as long as hope stays alive, they're going to hold onto that hope - and they should."
At this point, they are mostly looking for information that will conclusively tell them what fate befell their loved ones.
Despite repeated disappointments, Havas and Kuzar both emphasized, the families remain resolute.
"They're strong people. They're stoic people. They're holding up as well as could be expected, but it's been an emotional roller-coaster," Havas said.
Added Kuzar: "They're miners' wives. They're miners' mothers. Folks that work in the mining industry are very strong people."
While mine co-owner Robert Murray has told family members it is likely the six will be entombed in the mine, Havas said the only way they will accept that is if every other avenue has been explored and there is no way of recovering the bodies without jeopardizing the lives of any more rescuers.
Three died Aug. 16 when the mine's walls blew in on rescuers digging toward the trapped miners.
"None of these families," he said, "wants any other family to go through what they're going through."