HUNTINGTON, Utah (AP) – A mine company attorney said Monday that safety experts believe drilling a bigger hole and sending a rescue capsule into the coal mine where six men have been trapped for two weeks is impossible because the mountain is too unstable.
“It’s an unsafe activity,” Murray Energy Corp. lawyer Chris Van Bever said, commenting a day after relatives of the six miners pleaded for rescue efforts to continue.
Van Bever said there had been no decision yet to call off the rescue effort. Decisions about drilling a rescue hole and continuing with other rescue activities were being made jointly by federal and company officials in consultation with mining experts, he said.
The capsule had been considered a last option since three rescue workers were killed and six others injured Thursday as they tried to tunnel through rubble-filled mine passageways.
Family were outraged Sunday after grim officials said the missing miners may never been be found.
Mine officials had sustained hope for two weeks that the miners would be brought out alive. However, repeated efforts to signal the men have been met with silence, and air readings from a fourth narrow hole drilled more than 1,500 feet into the mountainside detected insufficient oxygen to support life in that part of the mine. Other bore holes indicated better air in other cavities but no signs of the miners.
Rob Moore, vice president of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner of the Crandall Canyon Mine, expressed doubt that the tunneling operation, halted since Thursday’s deaths, would resume.
“It’s likely these miners may not be found,” Moore said.
Family members of the six miners trapped in the Aug. 6 cave-in accused the mine’s owners and federal officials of abandoning their loved ones.
“We feel that they’ve given up and that they are just waiting for the six miners to expire,” said Sonny Olsen, a spokesman for the families, reading a statement Sunday night as about 70 relatives of the trapped miners stood behind him.
“We are here at the mercies of the officials in charge and their so-called experts. Precious time is being squandered here, and we do not have time to spare,” Olsen said.
The families demanded that rescuers immediately begin drilling a wider hole into which a rescue capsule could be lowered. Olsen said the families believe it is “the safest and most effective method to rescue their loved ones.”
“If rescue is not possible,” he added, “the capsule is the only method to recover our loved ones so that they can have a proper burial.”
A rescue capsule was used in 2002 to lift nine trapped miners from the flooded Quecreek mine in western Pennsylvania. But those miners were only about 230 feet below the surface, and the drill rig was set up on a gently rolling dairy farm. The Utah miners are about 1,500 feet underground.
Moore had been far more upbeat earlier in the weekend, but on Sunday he said oxygen readings and video images taken from the fourth hole had changed his mind about the miners’ probable fate. The oxygen level in the hole was just 11 to 12 percent, incompatible with life. Normal oxygen level is 21 percent.
Workers started Sunday on a fifth bore hole, which would have to penetrate more than 2,000 feet into the mountain, but Moore said he expected to find insufficient air there, too.
If tunneling doesn’t restart, part of the mine will have been turned into a tomb. Despite that, Moore said there is recoverable coal in other parts of the 5,000-acre mine, and the company expected to resume operations at some point. He said he didn’t discuss that prospect with family members.
Associated Press Writer Jessica Gresko contributed to this report.
PHOTO CAPTION: A tattered sign supporting six trapped miners inside the Crandall Canyon Mine is seen on Monday morning, Aug. 20, 2007, in Huntington, Utah. A mine company attorney says safety experts believe the mountain where six miners are missing is too unstable to allow drilling a bigger hole and sending in a rescue capsule. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)