Rescuers Drill in Cavern of Trapped Mine Workers

Rescue crews at a Utah coal mine have drilled into a cavern where six men have been trapped since Monday. They lowered a special microphone, hoping to find signs of life, but they didn't hear anything. Robert Murray, chairman of Murray Energy Corp., which owns the mine, is urging people not to give up hope. He says if the men survived the initial collapse of the mine, they should have been able to survive in the cavern.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Rescue crews at that Utah coal mine have drilled into a cavern where six men have been trapped since Monday. They lowered a special microphone, hoping to find signs of life, but they didn't hear anything. The mine's owner is urging people not to give up hope. He says if the men survived the initial collapse of the mine, they should have been able to survive in the cavern.

NPR's Jeff Brady had been monitoring the rescue efforts all this week. He joins us now from Huntington, Utah, which is not far from the mine. And Jeff, that must have been quite a moment when rescue crews broke through last night with that drill.

JEFF BRADY: It really was. Folks around here had been anticipating it all day long. It happened around 10:00 Mountain Time. And originally, those leading the rescue effort had hoped that when the drill bit broke through into the cavern, the miners would find it and bang on it, but that didn't happen. So they put this microphone down in the hall, and still they heard nothing.

Here's what the owner of the mine, Bob Murray, said at a press conference early this morning.

Mr. ROBERT MURRAY (Chairman, Murray Energy Corp.): I wish I could tell you tonight that we had noise from the microphone, but we don't. And I would not draw any conclusions from that whatsoever. That's just the first step in rescuing these miners.

BRADY: Murray says he met with the families of the miners to tell them what had happened and to encourage them also not to give up hope. But he says the mood in that room was pretty subdued.

MONTAGNE: And as we just said, the owner, Bob Murray, said if the men survived the initial collapse, they should still be able to have survived.

BRADY: Yeah, and with that microphone they also sent down a probe to test the air in that cavern. And Murray says the air is good in there. It's good enough to support human life. And so he says if they did survive that, they should still be alive down there.

MONTAGNE: And if they are, as everyone hopes, do we know about the conditions they might be enduring?

BRADY: Well, of course it's dark. Each of them had one of those headlamps that miners wear and they have enough charge to last about eight hours or so. So if there were six of them - and they wouldn't use all the lamps all the time -it's possible that they still could have some light if they absolutely needed it. Also, it's pretty chilly down there, about 58 degrees. But they all had coveralls on over their street clothes.

It's difficult to say how much food and water they have, though. Federal safety regulations require there to be rations kind of stored around the mine. It's just not clear if the area that they are in is one of those areas where food and water were stored.

MONTAGNE: And a second bigger hole is also being drilled. What would that be for?

BRADY: It's eight and a half inches wide, and it'll allow crews to send down a camera and a light to look around the cavern. That'll provide some more information on what's going on down there. And if they do find the miners alive there, then, with that larger hole, it'll make it easier to send down supplies.

MONTAGNE: You know, the debate over what caused the mine collapse does go on. The owner of the mine says it was an earthquake. He's adamant about that. Others suggest some of the mining techniques that he would have been responsible for could have been a factor. Any idea how long before we'll know what's right?

BRADY: It could be months, really. The mine owner, Bob Murray, he refuses to talk about this. He says he only wants to focus on the rescue effort right now. He won't accept the conclusions of what are now two groups of well-respected geologists who say this was not an earthquake that prompted this mine collapse.

The federal regulators, they're going to start an investigation, but not until the rescue effort is over. And even after they start their investigation, it will be another couple of months before their report is released.

MONTAGNE: Jeff, thanks.

BRADY: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: NPR's Jeff Brady, who's covering efforts to rescue six coal miners trapped in a mine in Central Utah. You can learn about some of the most promising advances in robotic mining and rescue technology at Web site, npr.org.

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