Fears of crumbling cliff slow search for Garrett miners

Two have been trapped by wall collapse since Tuesday

April 19, 2007|By Timothy Wheeler and Tom Pelton | Timothy Wheeler and Tom Pelton,Sun reporters

BARTON -- The search for two miners buried in the collapse of a wall of rock into an open coal pit was slowed yesterday by fears that the cliff could crumble again.

Rescue workers removed more than half of the huge pile of dirt and rock that fell Tuesday morning, trapping two miners who had been working at the Tri-Star coal mine, which straddles the Garrett-Allegany County line. The miners, whose names were not released, were operating heavy equipment, a bulldozer and a large backhoe, said Bob Cornett, acting district manager for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

By yesterday evening, rescuers had found no sign of the miners and had received no communications from them. Both of the miners' trucks had two-way radios.

Federal mine safety officials said they were not giving up hope. The cause of the collapse was unclear, but the weekend's heavy rains could have played a role, Cornett said.

"We will continue until we find the people," he said.

Serious coal mining accidents have been on the rise nationally. During a time of surging demand for coal for electricity, 47 miners died last year in coal-mining accidents nationwide, the most in more than a decade, according to federal statistics.

One miner died in Maryland last year, at the Mettiki deep mine in Garrett County.

Gov. Martin O'Malley said several state agencies and local governments were helping federal officials in the rescue efforts.

"The heart goes out to the families," O'Malley said.

Tri-Star Mining Inc. is based in Maryland. It has about 50 employees and six surface coal mines - four in Garrett County and two in Allegany County - and a train loading dock in Western Maryland.

Federal records show eight violations and $597 in penalties since April 2004 at the strip mine in Garrett County, including one for not having adequate safety equipment and brakes on trucks. The mine has also been the site of four minor accidents since 2005, including a worker who missed work after hurting his head during the loading of a truck, records show.

George R. Beener, listed in federal records as the controller of the mine, which has been in operation since 1986, was not available for comment. He was lauded by state environmental officials April 11 for his company's reforestation of mine land.

"It's my impression that this mine has been conducted very safely, that that this company pays the same respect for safety regulations as they do the environmental regulation," said Scott Boylan, a regional administrator with the Maryland Department of the Environment. "They are very well-regarded."

Work to remove debris from the site of the collapse has been slowed by safety concerns, Cornett said, because the heap of rocks and dirt that fell on the trucks is helping to prevent further crumbling of the 100- to 125-foot-high wall.

The two miners had been working in a trench cut into Caledonia Hill, near Barton, a longtime mining community in Western Maryland.

The collapse of the wall produced a sloping mound of debris that was 40 to 80 feet deep, up to 150 feet long and up to 75 feet wide, the mine safety officials said.

Rescue workers do not know whether the enclosed cabs of the mining equipment were sturdy enough to withstand the weight of the falling rock and dirt, Cornett said. But he said officials were hoping that the uneven nature of the rubble left some pockets of air.

Miners and their friends and families gathered throughout the day at the offices of Tri-State Mining Inc., where they were briefed hourly about the search. Those at the office declined to comment.

The incident weighed on the minds of many in this rural area.

Jim Michael of Westernport, a former truck driver for the mine, kept watch with his brother at the mine gate in his pickup truck through much of the afternoon yesterday.

Michael, 57, said he still knows many of those who work there, though he was disabled in a trucking accident in 1993.

"I've never heard of [a collapse] happening" at this mine, he said. "You might have a dribble [of rock], but nothing like this."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com tom.pelton@baltsun.com

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