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Rescuers moving to back of mine


With the drilling of another hole, the search for six missing miners moved Tuesday toward the back of a mine where officials hoped the men sought refuge in search of an air pocket.

Crews already have drilled two holes and fitted a camera down one of them, but they have yet to learn the coal miners’ fate, eight days after the mine partly collapsed under the weight of a shifting mountain.

The camera’s ghostly images revealed only one indication of a miner’s presence: a tool bag for hammers, wrenches and chisels hanging from a post, 3.4 miles from the entrance and more than 1,800 feet underground.

“It indicates we’re very close to where the miners were working,” said Bob Murray, chief of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner and operator of the Crandall Canyon mine.

The collapse of the mine’s midsection was thought to have pushed ventilated air into a pocket at the rear of the mine, where the miners may have fled when their escape routes were cut off by rubble, said Richard Stickler, chief of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.

The thunderous collapse blew out the walls of mine shafts but left reinforced ceilings mostly intact. About 5 feet of headroom remained in the deeper mine shafts.

Other video images taken Sunday showed a twisted conveyer belt, pipes and dripping water.

As crews started drilling a nearly 9-inch-wide camera hole late Monday, Murray said the pace of rescue efforts picked up inside the mine, where heavy machinery was clawing at loose rubble that nearly fills a main passageway.

Rescuers cleared about 680 feet of the 2,000 feet of rubble they were expected to encounter in the mine’s main passageway.

The effort could take several more days, but for the first time since the Aug. 6 collapse, the rescuers were progressing steadily forward, without the frequent interruptions that have characterized the rescue effort so far.

“We are moving at a more rapid pace,” Murray said late Monday.

The third drill was set to drop 1,300 feet deeper into the mine and near its back wall. The rig required more roads to be built to reach the location on a steep mountainside.

A microphone lowered down the first, 2-1/2-inch hole picked up no sound, and air samples sucked up the hole revealed just over 7 percent oxygen – not enough to sustain life. The hole is now being used to pump 2,000 cubic feet of fresh air a minute into the mine, Stickler said.

Mining rescues after eight or more days are not unheard of. In May 2006, two miners were rescued after being trapped for 14 days following a collapse at an Australian mine.

In 2002, nine coal miners were rescued after surviving eight days in a mine in northwestern China. In 1968, six miners were rescued after 10 days in West Virginia.

Murray has blamed an earthquake for the collapse, although seismologists say there was no quake.

Twelve of the 134 miners working on the rescue have asked to be reassigned because they were frightened by what Murray called “tectonic activity.”

“We have had some miners that have been working in the rescue effort that have asked to be relieved. They’ve been somewhat frightened,” he said.

Meanwhile, suggestions of trouble at the mine earlier this year surfaced in a memo from an engineering firm to the mine operator.

The memo involved earth movement that damaged a different underground area, and said structural problems led the company to abandon mining in a damaged northern section.

But the company did not give up on the mine. Instead, it hired Agapito Associates Inc., a Grand Junction, Colo., engineering firm, to analyze how to safely mine the southern sections.

The operators were mining directly across from the area that was damaged in March when last week’s collapse occurred.

Agapito’s April 18 memo to mine co-owner and operator UtahAmerican Energy Inc. said the operators were involved in retreat mining – a common but sometimes dangerous practice that involves pulling out leftover sections and pillars of coal that hold up the roof.

Although Murray has denied that the company was retreat mining at the time of last week’s accident, MSHA officials have said they approved a plan for the mine to engage in retreat mining.

Murray said Monday that it was Agapito that recommended Crandall Canyon’s mining plan and he asserted that it was “perfectly safe.”

“We’ve had a once-in-a-lifetime disaster here,” Murray said. “This has not happened before. We have never seen seismic activity as occurred in this case.”

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