Rescue setbacks: 'We are back to square one,' mine owner says

Published December 4, 2008 12:26 pm
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HUNTINGTON - The owner of the Crandall Canyon coal mine Tuesday put the fate of six missing miners in the hands of the Almighty, even as rescuers were setting up seismic gear to determine if they survived the cave-in that imprisoned them deep underground.

"I don't know if the miners are alive or dead, only the Lord knows that," said mine owner Robert Murray, president and CEO of Ohio-based Murray Energy Corp. "But it is up to Bob Murray to get them out."

But after one failed attempt to reach the miners and dangerous conditions inside the mine, Murray said Tuesday evening that it could take one to two weeks to reach them.

The six men were trapped by a cave-in at 2:48 a.m. Monday. By Tuesday evening, guarded optimism about their rescue gave way to anxiety and fatigue as mine rescue teams ran into one setback after another.

Late Monday, an attempt to enter an old tunnel parallel to where the men may be trapped failed when it was deemed unsafe and impassable.

At 4 a.m. Tuesday, search crews withdrew after a "mountain bump," or seismic compression in the rock that encases the mine, made it unsafe to continue. Rescuers regrouped to mend ventilation systems and install more support beams before they could push back into the tunnel.

"We are back to square one," Murray said of his rescue crews' efforts.

He also continued to insist that an earthquake, not a "bump," caused Monday's collapse. On Tuesday, however, Rafael Abreu, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey National Earthquake Information Center in Colorado, said a 3.9 magnitude event recorded Monday lacked the wave forms characteristic of a naturally occurring earthquake.

"What we are seeing is a mine collapse," Abreu said.

Still, Murray continued to couch his assessment of the mine's condition in earthquake-related terms: "We continue to have aftershocks and it has totally shut down our rescue efforts underground. There is no way we can reach the trapped miners in [less than] a week."

It is believed the men are about 3.4 miles from the mine entrance and about 1,500 feet below the surface. There may be as much as 2,000 feet of rubble in the tunnel between the men and rescuers.

"I'm disappointed in our progress," Murray said. "We doing everything we can, but it isn't enough."

Two surface rigs began drilling toward the mine at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Murray said. One will drill a hole 8 inches in diameter, the other is 2 1/2 inches in diameter.

"We'll reach the miners in two days and provide communication, light, ventilation and sustenance," he said.

Earlier Tuesday, an emotional Murray castigated The Associated Press and Fox News for reporting that so-called retreat mining techniques may have caused the mishap. Retreat mining takes place during the final stages of an active tunnel when support pillars of coal are removed, ultimately causing the roof to collapse.

"No retreat mining took place in the vicinity" where the men were working, Murray insisted.

Some of those quoted by the AP, including officials from the United Mine Workers of America, "made false statements," Murray said, because "they want to unionize my non-union mine."

But Tuesday afternoon, Richard Stickler, the assistant secretary for the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration, told reporters gathered near the mine that "retreat mining has been done at this operation."

He added that he did not know whether coal pillars used to support the roof had been removed near the area where the men were trapped.

Gov. Jon Huntsman toured the mine site with Sen. Bob Bennett, emerging grim-faced after the two-hour visit.

"This is a very difficult time for Huntington and people who call Emery County home," Huntsman said. "It's tough going. Everyone is keeping hope alive - we have to."

Also Tuesday, seismic equipment was being set up in an attempt to hear the miners, said Al Davis of the Mine Health and Safety Administration Denver office.

The system requires explosives to be discharged in hopes the trapped men can hear them.

"They are trained to pound on the ceiling when they hear the explosions," Davis said. "We'll be listening for that response."

He added, however, that "we are working at the extreme limits of this equipment."

Little was known about the trapped miners themselves. The company has refused to identify them, although family members have identified two of them as Kerry Allred and Mario Sanchez.

The Mexican Consulate in Salt Lake City said three of the miners are Mexican citizens, but also did not release their names.

Mine company officials described the miners' families as bearing up well; reporters, however, have not been allowed to speak to them. Emery County Sheriff Lamar Guymon said company officials asked him to keep news media away from the families.

And one of four miners who escaped Monday's collapse said he was instructed not to talk about what happened. Jameson Ward of Orangeville did say that the trapped men were part of his mine crew.

"It was a bounce," Ward said from the porch of his home. "Bad things happen. Nothing can be done about it."

A "bounce" refers to a quakelike shift and settling that relieves the pressure in areas where coal has been mined or coal pillars have been removed.

In addition, sheriff's deputies were advising miners coming off their shifts not to speak with reporters.

But one miner who was finishing a shift at the Crandall Canyon mine where he had been aiding the rescue effort said it was difficult to be optimistic.

"I would say, not so good," said Carl Grissman, of Price.

Huntington City Councilwoman Julie Jones said her son, Elam Jones, 23, was also helping rescuers.

"I talked to him for about two minutes last night," she said. "He told me rescuers were on their knees digging with their hands."

The coal mining community of Emery County is pulling together, she said. "[My son] says, 'it's scary, mom.' But I have to be there. I have to do my job."



* DONALD W. MEYERS contributed to this report.



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