Fatal cave-in halts tunneling

With no sign of six trapped miners, kin wonder whether it's time to quit

August 18, 2007|By Nicholas Riccardi, Judy Pasternak and Stephen Braun | Nicholas Riccardi, Judy Pasternak and Stephen Braun,Los Angeles Times

HUNTINGTON, Utah -- The deaths of three rescuers caught in an explosive coal blowout while digging toward a team of trapped miners left this mining region torn yesterday over how to proceed, as federal officials suspended the disastrous underground search.

Shaken by a string of setbacks in the rescue effort and then by the catastrophic "seismic bump" Thursday night, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. urged the rescue organizers to "send no one else into that mine until they can guarantee their safety."

Federal officials said they had braced the rescue tunnel with the strongest available protections against cave-ins caused by the subterranean jolts, but it wasn't enough.

During a news conference near the Crandall Canyon Mine site, U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration director Richard E. Stickler said officials would now reassess the rescue attempt before renewing the search for six miners trapped in coal dust and darkness since Aug. 6.

Officials with the mine said they were determined to press on with drilling for signs of life. "We will move forward with that effort," Murray Energy Vice President Rob Moore said flatly.

But anguished relatives of victims wondered aloud whether it was time to abandon the search.

"I had two brother-in-laws in the mine last night," said Shelle Allred, a member of an extended family whose miner sons were caught in both cave-ins. "So many people putting their lives at risk with no proof of life."

In Huntington, many residents have held out hope through 12 days of raised and dashed expectations. Searchers have drilled three long bore holes deep into East Mountain, as far as 1,300 feet through its sandstone and limestone layers.

But the drilling attempts, aimed at finding the trapped men and providing food and water until they could be dug out, found only uninhabited coal seams. A fourth bore hole is now under way from the peak.

Last night, nearly a day after a federal mining official and two local searchers were killed and six injured in the collapse, local spirits were crushed.

Jeremiah Jackson, 31, who works at another of the area's mountainside mines, spoke tersely, voice quavering, while he shopped for plastic piping at a Huntington co-op.

"I've got people I know who're underground, trapped, and I'd like to get them out," he said, eyes hidden by a clamped-down baseball cap. "But on the other hand, I don't want anyone else to get hurt."

Federal officials acknowledged that they can't ensure the safety of search teams inside the mountain, frequently shaken by the sudden massive shifts of earth that miners call "mountain bumps."

Nicholas Riccardi, Judy Pasternak and Stephen Braun write for the Los Angeles Times.

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