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Miners feared dead, forever entombed

Readings show low oxygen levels

Mike McKowen, an attorney for Murray Energy Corp., co-owner of the Crandall Canyon Mine, tapped the back of Rob Moore, the company's vice president, yesterday as Moore left a press conference in which he said the six trapped miners may never be found. Mike McKowen, an attorney for Murray Energy Corp., co-owner of the Crandall Canyon Mine, tapped the back of Rob Moore, the company's vice president, yesterday as Moore left a press conference in which he said the six trapped miners may never be found. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

HUNTINGTON, Utah -- Officials all but declared dead yesterday six miners they have been trying to rescue for the past two weeks, after a fourth hole drilled to the area where the men might be trapped found insufficient oxygen to support life.

"It's likely that these miners might not be found," said Rob Moore, a vice president with the company that owns the Crandall Canyon Mine, at a midday press conference.

It was a marked change from previous statements in which officials tried to maintain hope despite dwindling odds for the miners and a series of tragic setbacks. Three rescue workers were killed last week during a second cave-in, and constant instability underground had turned the frantic effort into a slow crawl. But Moore and federal officials as recently as Saturday night had stressed that the effort was still a "rescue attempt" and urged people not to despair.

Yesterday, however, he refused to use the word "rescue."

Moore said that the analysis of air from the 8-inch hole is what changed his mind. All prior holes drilled into the mine also found no breathable air. Rescuers had hoped the latest hole, burrowed into a normally oxygen-rich "bleeder" tunnel where the miners might have taken shelter, would find signs of life.

He and federal officials met with the families of the miners yesterday morning in a church on the edge of this remote mining town to deliver the news.

"I'm sure you can imagine it was a very difficult discussion," Moore said.

He said it was unclear whether the bodies of the miners could ever be recovered. Families, he said, wanted the effort to continue.

"They're responding as any of us would respond," Moore said. "They want to see their loved ones again. I want to provide that. But I can't guarantee it."

Rescuers are digging a fifth hole, but Moore and Richard Stickler, the federal official who oversees the Mine Safety and Health Administration, said the hole would probably find the same toxic conditions as the other four.

After the early morning collapse Aug. 6, officials hoped to reach the miners through a two-pronged strategy. First, they drilled narrow holes to where the men might be trapped and sent down food and water. Separately, they began tunneling more than 2,000 feet through collapsed tunnels to reach the men.

But both prongs quickly encountered obstacles.

The holes found toxic air but no signs of the miners. And the massive 3 1/2-mile-deep mine complex continued to shift and tremble, delaying the digging. When a sudden "bump" buried nine rescue workers under coal and rocks Thursday night, officials suspended all digging indefinitely. Three of the workers died, the others were injured.

A team of specialists met yesterday morning to determine whether it would ever be possible to resume digging, but Moore was doubtful.

"We are not going to take any more unacceptable risks," he said.

Still, Moore said Murray Energy Corp. may reopen the parts of the mine unaffected by the collapse and continue to extract coal. He said that, before the accident, the mine had a sterling safety record.

The grim news began to filter out as hundreds flocked to a park in the neighboring town of Price for a "Hope in the Dark" fund-raiser for the families of the miners and rescue workers.

"It's just so heartbreaking," said organizer Jeannette Marasco, 58. Her daughter-in-law's father, Kerry Allred, is one of the trapped miners. Marasco's brother-in-law sustained a broken pelvis, broken ribs, and a blood clot in his brain after being injured in the second collapse. "Words can't describe what it's like."

Price's mayor, Joe Piccolo, was taken aback by the official pessimism and suggestions that the bodies might stay underground. "I think it's premature not to look any longer," he said.

He refused to give up hope.

"We want a miracle," Piccolo said. "Miracles happen."

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