MICHELE NORRIS, host:
Rescuers at the Utah coal mine ran into more problems today. They've been unable to get a microphone through a third borehole in their effort to make contact with six trapped miners. Those miners have been trapped for nine days now. The mine operator still insists that an earthquake caused the cave-in and he's holding on to that theory, even though seismologists say the collapse itself is what registered on their instruments.
NPR's Jeff Brady reports.
JEFF BRADY: This statement comes at just about every news conference Crandall Canyon mine operator Bob Murray holds.
Mr. ROBERT MURRAY (Operator, Crandall Canyon): From our mining experience, we know that it was an earthquake.
BRADY: And any reporter who challenges him must be.
Mr. MURRAY: More concerned about trying to place blame than they are in the families.
BRADY: And if a reporter still presses the issue.
Mr. MURRAY: I said I wasn't going in and if - talk about that anymore. And since you won't honor my request, this interview, for my part, is concluded.
BRADY: The Mine Safety and Health Administration, known as MSHA, will appoint a panel to conduct an investigation once the rescue is over, and the cause of the collapse will get a lot of consideration. But for experts who've studied the seismic data, the conclusion already is clear.
Stuart Sipkin is a geophysicist with the National Earthquake Information Center in Golden, Colorado. Sipkin says all the data point to the mine collapse, not an earthquake, as the thing that moved their seismometers.
Dr. STUART SIPKIN (Geophysicist, National Earthquake Information Center): Earthquakes, mine collapses, explosions, all have very different seismic signatures. And this very definitely have the seismic signature of a cavity or a mine collapse.
BRADY: Just down the road from Sipkin is the Colorado School of Mines. Bob Ferriter directs the mine safety and health program there. Prior to that, he spent 27 years with MSHA as a mining engineer.
Dr. BOB FERRITER (Director, Mine Safety and Health Program, Colorado School of Mines): I would discount the earthquake theory entirely.
BRADY: Ferriter says not only was this a mine collapse, it's likely that mining practices by Murray's company caused it.
Dr. FERRITER: Well, I think the removal of the material from the mine, where it was taken out at and how much was taken out is what actually triggered the collapse and caused the seismic event.
BRADY: Mine operator Bob Murray says his mining plan was approved by MSHA and that what workers were doing was safe. MSHA had approved something called retreat mining. That's where miners remove the last pillars of coal holding up the roof and allow it to fall as they retreat to a safe place. Murray has repeatedly said retreat mining had nothing to do with this collapse, that it was an earthquake.
Often when there's a mining accident, the operators will blame an act of God, says Tim Conaway. He is a West Virginia attorney who specializes in coal mining accidents. And he thinks he knows why they do that.
Mr. TIM CONAWAY (Attorney, West Virginia): Well, if God did it, that means that it wasn't your fault.
BRADY: Conaway says Murray may be thinking about the lawsuits down the road that are sure to come, especially if the trapped miners are dead and his company's mining practices are to blame. But Murray may also truly believe it was an earthquake, or have to believe it, says Conaway.
Mr. CONAWAY: I expect there's a natural human reaction to say, I couldn't have done this horrible thing, or my people couldn't have done this horrible thing.
BRADY: Several people within the mining industry also told NPR that Murray is clearly trying to avoid liability by pointing to an earthquake, but none of them would say that on tape. One said he had no interest in becoming one of Bob Murray's enemies.
Jeff Brady, NPR News, near Huntington, Utah.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.