Officials suspend search for Utah miners

Times Staff Writers

The deaths of three rescuers caught in an explosive coal blowout while digging toward a team of trapped miners left this mining region torn Friday over how to proceed as federal officials suspended their disastrous underground search.

Shaken by setbacks in the rescue effort and then by the catastrophic “seismic bump” that caused the tragedy Thursday night, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. urged the rescue team to “send no one else into that mine until they can guarantee their safety.”

Federal officials said they had braced the underground rescue tunnel as strongly as possible against cave-ins caused by subterranean jolts. During a news conference near the Crandall Canyon Mine, federal Mine Safety and Health Administration Director Richard E. Stickler said officials would reassess the rescue attempt before renewing the search for six miners trapped in coal dust and darkness since Aug. 6.


Officials with the mine said they were determined to press on. “We will move forward with that effort,” said Rob Moore, vice president of Murray Energy Corp., which owns the mine.

But anguished relatives of victims wondered aloud whether it was time to abandon the search, especially because there had been no indication the trapped miners were still alive. “I had two brother-in-laws in the mine last night,” said Shellee Allred, a member of an extended family whose miner sons were caught in both cave-ins. “So many people putting their lives at risk with no proof of life.”

In Huntington, many residents have held out hope through 12 days of raised and dashed expectations. Searchers have drilled three holes into East Mountain, as far as 1,300 feet through its sandstone and limestone layers. But the drilling attempts, aimed at finding the trapped men and providing food and water until they could be dug out, found only uninhabited coal seams. A fourth bore hole is now underway from the peak.

On Friday night, nearly a day after a federal mining official and two local searchers were killed and six rescuers were injured in the collapse, local spirits were crushed.

Jeremiah Jackson, 31, who works at another of the area’s mountainside mines, spoke tersely, voice quavering, while he shopped for plastic piping at a Huntington co-op.

“I’ve got people I know who’re underground, trapped, and I’d like to get them out,” he said, eyes hidden by a clamped-down baseball cap. “But on the other hand, I don’t want anyone else to get hurt.”

Federal officials acknowledged they couldn’t assure the safety of search teams inside the mountain, which has been plagued by the sudden, massive shifts of earth that miners call “mountain bumps.”

Stickler said his team planned to meet with mining experts in the next several days “face to face, and ask ourselves: Is there any possible way that we can continue this underground operation and provide the safety for the rescue workers?”

One option under consideration is rebracing the collapsed tunnel with steel arches to reinforce the coal pillars holding up the interior ceiling. The idea was broached by Keith A. Heasley, a mining engineering professor at West Virginia University whom federal mining officials consulted before they launched the underground effort to reach the trapped men.

Heasley is expected to fly today to the remote mountainside base. The operative question, Heasley said, is: “Is there a safe way to do this?”

In a mining town, the notion of abandoning lost miners is akin to soldiers leaving comrades on the battlefield. But even as Huntsman referred to the three rescuers who died as heroes, he edged toward that bleak possibility Friday: “I don’t know that much will be done below until we can guarantee worker safety.”

The deadly cave-in occurred at 6:39 p.m. MDT Thursday as diggers reached 800 feet inside the collapsed mine. Heasley said the blowout occurred just as the rescue team approached a critical point inside the tunnel where much of the pressure inside the mountain bears down.

“All these pillars had already bumped once when the miners were trapped,” he said. “And that pushes coal into the entry. But at the same time, that coal props up the pillar and they had to remove it again. In doing that, they’re taking some support away from the pillar that’s left.”

Appearing awed by the force of the tunnel collapse, Stickler said Friday that a pressurized coal pillar inside the tunnel simply blew apart, spewing out 30 feet of coal. “When that energy gets released,” Stickler said, “it’s like an explosion,” which in this case left some rescuers buried under “2 to 3 feet of material.”

Stunned workers rushed in, frantic to save the men. “It was chaotic,” searcher Donnie Leonard told Utah television station KUTV. Hauling oxygen tanks and stretchers, his team “remained as calm as possible.”

One of the dead rescuers was identified as Gary Jensen, 53, a federal inspector who specialized in mine roofs. A local miner, Dale Black, 48, was also killed. He had been trying to reach his cousin Kerry Allred, one of the miners missing for the last 12 days.

“On behalf of all of the MSHA employees, we give our deepest condolences to the families,” Stickler said.

White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said President Bush called Huntsman on Friday afternoon to express his condolences for those who died or were injured in the mine rescue. “He wanted the governor and the people of Utah to know that they are in his thoughts and prayers,” Johndroe said.

The bad luck clinging to East Mountain -- a drab 10,000-foot peak studded by shallow water deposits and dinosaur fossils -- has led mining opponents and even local officials to question the performance and decisions of federal mining officials and Murray Energy in the last few months.

The president of the United Mine Workers of America, Cecil E. Roberts, blamed the mine’s owners and federal officials for the latest tragedy. Owners of the nonunion mine had rejected UMW offers to help in the rescue effort, saying they had all the help they needed.

Alluding to the critics, Huntsman said: “We have questions, too. And we want answers to those questions.”

The most critical questions surround the effort in March by Utah American Energy, the mine operators headed by Murray Energy, to redirect its mining inside the mountain after a powerful seismic burst forced the firm to halt work at the mine’s northern wall. The firm’s proposal to widen bracing at the mine’s southern wall and continue mining there was accepted by Stickler’s agency, a decision questioned by Utah newspapers and mining opponents.

Support for those pillars was crucial, because the Crandall Canyon Mine had a history of bumps even before the initial collapse. The company wanted to mine the south barrier -- the area where the miners were trapped -- and had applied in February for federal approval of a roof control plan there.

“This area contains a valuable coal resource,” said a report prepared for the owners by Agapito Associates Inc. of Grand Junction, Colorado. The Times obtained a copy of the report.

Leo Gilbride, a partner in Agapito, recommended April 18 that pillars in the south barrier be 80 feet by 129 feet “or similar” -- 37 feet wider than on the north side. “This size of pillar is expected to provide a reliable level of protection against problematic bumping for retreat mining under cover reaching 2,200 feet,” he wrote.

The company submitted an amendment to its roof control plan, which was approved by the Mining Safety and Health Administration on June 16. It was signed by Allyn C. Davis, the agency’s district manager. For Huntington residents, the mine’s knotted history is only the backdrop to their tense vigil for lost friends and relatives. Dale Curtis, 56, knew Dale Black, one of the three men who died in Thursday’s cave-in. It was no surprise to him that Black had given his life trying to save fellow miners.

“I can see him trying to rescue them, doing everything he could,” Curtis said. “Something about [mining] where the people kind of grow together. You live together, eat together, share things. . . . You become like a family.” Curtis said he was unsure whether the rescue should continue.

Listening to country songs at a benefit concert for the families of the trapped miners, Sam Brammall said he was losing hope that the men were alive.

“I’m at the point where if there isn’t much hope for the original boys, take it slow and take it careful,” he said. But, he added, get them out.

“I want to see the bodies out of there,” said Brammall, 61, who worked in the Crandall Canyon Mine for 17 years. “I don’t want to see anybody left in there. I worked at that mine too many years -- I know that’s not a place you want to be.”

Riccardi reported from Huntington, Pasternak and Braun from Washington. Times researcher Lynn Marshall contributed to this report from Seattle.