Mine rescue effort is suspended
3 workers killed, 6 injured trying to save comrades
HUNTINGTON, Utah -- After 10 days of setbacks, nerve jangling "bumps," and a second mine collapse that killed three workers trying to rescue their comrades, authorities yesterday conceded defeat to a mountain that appeared to be slowly crumbling.
"Is there any possible way we can continue this underground operation and provide safety for the rescue workers? At this point we don't have an answer," Richard Stickler, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration chief, said as he announced that officials had suspended the rescue operation indefinitely.
The collapse Thursday night killed three rescue workers and injured six others who were trying to tunnel through rubble to reach six men trapped since Aug. 6 after a massive cave-in. Crews yesterday were still drilling a fourth hole into the mountain to look for any sign of the missing men.
"Without question, we have suffered a setback, and we have incurred an incredible loss. But this team remains focused on the task at hand" -- the rescue of the miners, said Rob Moore, vice president of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner of Crandall Canyon Mine.
Governor Jon Huntsman of Utah, who ordered flags lowered to half-staff, said, "We went from a tragedy to a catastrophe."
Huntsman continued to call the effort a "rescue operation," but he said the digging would not resume until the workers' safety could be guaranteed.
"Let us ensure that we have no more injuries. We have suffered enough as a state," he said.
President Bush called Huntsman yesterday afternoon to express his condolences for those who died or were injured in the mine rescue. "He wanted the governor and the people of Utah to know that they are in his thoughts and prayers," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Mexico's consul in Salt Lake City, Salvador Jimenez, said he spoke with Huntsman and urged him to continue the rescue effort. Specialists need to study the best way to do it safely, but "this effort should not be interrupted," Jimenez said. Three of the six men still trapped are Mexican nationals.
The cave-in at 6:39 p.m. was believed to be caused by a "mountain bump," in which shifting layers of earth forced chunks of rock from the walls. The force from the bump registered a magnitude 1.6 at the University of Utah seismograph stations in Salt Lake City.
"These events seem to be related to ongoing settling of the rock mass following the main event," said Lee Siegel, university spokesman. "I don't think I'm going too far to say that this mountain is collapsing in slow motion."
Stickler said the bump unleashed a massive blast of coal and support material that buried the miners working to clear rubble from the underground tunnel. The blast created a destruction zone about 30 feet long along a wall of the chamber and knocked out steel posts, chain-link fencing, and the cables that tied everything together.
The rescuers had been working beneath 2,000 feet of sandstone. Stickler said the weight of the mountain created tremendous pressure on the cavern, blowing out reinforced walls with a force that could break a 40-ton mining machine in half.
"When that energy gets released, it's like an explosion," he said.
Rescuers frantically dug out the injured men, buried under 5 feet of coal, by hand and rushed them from the mine on the beds of pickups. One died at the scene, said Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator for coal mine safety.
Two of the dead were identified as MSHA inspector Gary Jensen, 53, of Redmond and miner Dale Black of Monticello, who was in his 40s.
Jensen had worked at MSHA since 2001 and was recently assigned to special investigations, said Amy Louviere, agency spokeswoman.
Black grew up two doors down from Huntington's mayor, Hilary Gordon, who visited his mother yesterday and recalled that he was "just full of life."
The president of United Mine Workers of America, Cecil E. Roberts, blamed the mine's owners and federal officials for the latest tragedy. Owners of the nonunion mine had rejected UMW offers to help in the rescue effort, saying they had all the help they needed.
"This disaster has only compounded what was already an immense tragedy. Making the situation much worse is the fact that all of these deaths were needless and preventable," Roberts said in a statement from union headquarters in Fairfax, Va.
But Stickler said outside specialists had signed off on MSHA's plan to ensure the rescuers' safety underground.
"There was consensus that the plan that we had developed and implemented provided the maximum safety of workers that we knew to be available," he said. "Obviously, it was not adequate."
Noticeably absent yesterday from the news conference announcing the suspended rescue effort was Bob Murray, co-owner of the mine.
"He wanted to be here. I'm certain you understand the reasons he could not be here this morning," Moore said.