Shifting Ground Delays Utah Mine Rescue

It could take more than a week for rescue crews to reach six men trapped 1,500 feet underground in a central Utah coal mine. Seismic activity Tuesday caused a cave-in. As a result, rescue efforts were called off because it's not safe for crews to be in the mine.

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Here is one fact that shows the difficulty of rescuing six men trapped 1,500 feet underground in a Utah mine. The CEO of the company that owns the mine says the ground is still moving. Even areas that had been dug out collapsed again. Rescue efforts had to be called off last night for the safety of the rescue crews.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: After a second day of trying to reach the six trapped men, mine owner Bob Murray said he had good news and bad news.

Mr. ROBERT MURRAY (President and CEO, Murray Energy Corporation): I'm going to start with the bad news.

BRADY: Murray said the ground in the mine is still moving. Crews got within 2,000 feet of the area where the miners are believed to be, but that progress was cut off when some cleared areas of the mine collapsed back in.

Mr. MURRAY: Unfortunately, all the work that we have done since yesterday morning was wiped out. We are back to square one.

BRADY: Murray said rescue efforts have been stopped because it's not safe for workers to be in the mine. They hope to return today and they'll shore up areas as they're cleared out. That will slow done the work considerably.

Mr. MURRAY: And it's the estimate of my management and me personally that there is absolutely no way that through our underground rescue effort we can reach the vicinity of the trapped miners for at least one week - at the earliest.

BRADY: Murray said the good news is his company is drilling two holes - the biggest is less than nine inches and they should reach the miners within three days. The holes will allow communication if the miners are still alive, and a way to send them water and food.

But it was the bad news that cast a shadow over a Catholic mass held Tuesday evening for the families of three of the miners. The Mexican consulate in Salt Lake City said the three are Mexican citizens.

(Soundbite of mass)

BRADY: The mass was held in Spanish and English. Father Omar Ontiveros encouraged the 60 or so people inside the small church to talk about their feelings and remain strong.

Reverend OMAR ONTIVEROS (Cathedral of the Madeleine): My brothers and sisters, at this moment we are going through a difficult time, and we may be losing heart, hope, or faith.

BRADY: Retired coal miner Victor Pacheco, Sr. attended the service. Like others in this community, he was trying to think of ways the six miners might survive.

Mr. VICTOR PACHECO, SR. (Retired Coal Miner): If they're behind the cave-in, and they have plenty of air, I pray that they're okay. Lot of times coal miners save a sandwich (unintelligible) for their children when they come home, so they might have a sandwich leftover in their bucket. And they usually carry water with them.

BRADY: The Mine Safety and Health Administration, known as MSHA, is investigating what happened at the mine. For now, what prompted the collapse remains a point of bitter controversy between some seismologists and the mine's owner, Bob Murray, who says it's clear to him what happened.

Mr. MURRAY: This was an earthquake. It was two earthquakes, and the seismic activity continues.

BRADY: But seismologists say it appears the mine collapse itself is what registered on their instruments, not an earthquake.

Also, Murray has vigorously denied that the miners were doing something called retreat mining. That's where the last remaining pillars of coal left standing are knocked down and the roof is allowed to cave in.

Richard Stickler with MSHA declined to argue with Murray.

Mr. RICHARD STICKLER (Director, Mine Safety and Health Administration): I'm not here to get into the political debate. I'm here to focus on doing everything that we can to try to rescue these miners as soon as possible.

BRADY: After the rescue effort is finished, MSHA says it will conduct a full investigation to figure out what the miners were doing early Monday morning and whether their actions contributed to the collapse of the mine.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Price, Utah.

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