Mine rescuers running out of options; experts give long odds
HUNTINGTON, Utah (AP) Rescuers are running out of options to rescue six coal miners trapped by a cave-in nearly 10 days ago, and experts are giving long odds against finding the men alive.As crews slowly dig a path to the mens presumed location at the Crandall Canyon mine, narrow drill holes sunk deep into the mountain amount to little more than educated guesses.There are a lot of possibilities, Richard Stickler, chief of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said Wednesday. We started with logical thinking: If I were in this situation, what would I do? That has guided us in where we look.The men could be huddled together or spread out anywhere in underground area the size of several football fields.Thats if they survived at all, experts say. The Aug. 6 cave-in released low-oxygen air from sealed chambers into the working area of the mine. And downward pressure on the walls sent chunks of coal flying like bullets through the shaft.Theres always a chance. You have to hang on to that chance. But realistically it is small, quite small, said J. Davitt McAteer, former head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration and now vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. You would have to have every single break and divine intervention to successfully extract these guys.Two holes drilled into the mine have not located them, and a third drill broke through Wednesday into an area where officials say the men may have sought refuge after the collapse. But a microphone snagged about 20 feet above the roof of the mine, and it couldnt pick up any sound that might have come from the mine. They planned to lower a video camera with its own microphone in the next attempt, and were making plans to drill a fourth hole.Were going to keep drilling until we find these miners, Bob Murray, chief of Murray Energy Corp., the co-owner and operator of the Crandall Canyon Mine, said Wednesday.Murray has acknowledged the drilling may not show whether the miners are alive or dead. At nearly every turn, he cautions reporters that the initial blast inside the mountain may have killed the men instantly.Mining rescues after 10 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 1968, six miners were rescued after 10 days in West Virginia.I am still very optimistic that we will find these miners alive. There is real reason to believe that, Murray said Wednesday. I still remain very, very hopeful.The effort to dig out a rubble-filled tunnel was proceeding slowly Wednesday and could last another week.Miners advanced to about 780 feet in the rubble-filled tunnel by midday Wednesday they have more than 1,200 feet to go before reaching the area where the miners were working.They know damn well were doing what we can to get to them, and were going to get there no doubt about it, Bodee Allred, the mines safety manager, said Wednesday in his coal-blackened overalls.Allred, who has a cousin trapped inside the mine, said the force of the Aug. 6 collapse was definitely something Ive never seen before. … Every time youre in there you have to be on your toes. Youve got to be alert, and thats what coal mining is. Theres a lot of pressure in there, and were taking precautions to keep our men safe.A seismic bump damaged a coal excavator Tuesday night, stopping the advance for more than two hours, but work resumed after repairs were made to the 65-ton machine, Stickler said.The initial thunderous collapse blew out the walls of mine shafts, filling them with rubble. If the men were not crushed by rock, their bodies could have been crushed by the immense air pressure generated by the collapse, mining executives and federal regulators have said.And if they survived that, they could have died from lack of oxygen, even though fresh air is now being pumped down one of the drill holes.Mine officials believe the collapse released a rush of oxygen-depleted air into the area where the men were believed to be working, but officials are working on the theory that the bad air drove a pocket of breathable air into the back of the mine and that miners may have sought refuge there.A blast of air came out of the mines entrance, said Lane Adair, general manager of the Crandall Canyon Mine. For miners in the back of the mine, the blast would have felt like being inside an air compressor, he said.Murray has said there are many reasons to have hope, citing video images showing about 5 feet of headroom deep inside the mine, with 2 or 3 feet of loose coal covering the floor.The cameras light can reach only about 30 feet, but everywhere it points shows the reinforced roofs of the tunnels appear intact, Murray said.The voids could hold breathable air, although an initial sample showed barely 7 percent oxygen not enough to support life.The miners could find drinkable water seeping everywhere through the mine, although they would have little or no food, having probably consumed what food they brought with them for their 12-hour shift, officials have said.The first hole was drilled 3.4 miles into the mine and more than 1,800 feet underground, where officials thought the miners may have tried to escape, only to find tunnels blocked. They dropped a microphone into that 2 1/2-inch hole wide, but picked up no sound.A second hole about 8 inches wide was drilled to accommodate a camera. It was sent down near where the miners were known to be working at the time of the collapse but showed only a tool bag, a twisted conveyor belt, dripping water and pipes no miners.The mine may have been made more dangerous by what Murray acknowledged was decades of digging using retreat mining, a common though sometimes dangerous method in which miners yank out a mines pillars to grab the last of the coal.Murray said the retreat mining took place before he took over the mine a year ago. He said no retreat mining was taking place at the time of the collapse, which he insists was triggered by an earthquake. Government seismologists say the mines collapse registered as an earthquake.Theres no connection between retreat mining and the natural disaster that occurred here, Murray said Tuesday. Ive said that from the beginning, and thats the way it will eventually come out.Mine-safety experts say that two sections of the Crandall Canyon Mine that collapsed in March may have been an early warning sign. They questioned whether the company and the government agency that oversees its work should have closed the mine then.Instead, operators moved to another section and continued mining.Associated Press writers Chris Kahn and Alicia A. Caldwell in Huntington, Ed White in Salt Lake City, and Jennifer Talhelm in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.
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