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Rescuers searching for 6 missing miners in Utah look to farthest section of mine

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Posted: August 14, 2007 5:11 p.m.
Updated: August 29, 2007 5:00 a.m.
    HUNTINGTON, Utah — Crews were drilling a third hole Tuesday in their more than weeklong search for six missing coal miners, hoping the men had headed to the back of the mine to reach an air pocket.
    At the same time, heavy machinery worked to clear the main passageway of the Crandall Canyon mine, which filled with rubble when its midsection collapsed Aug. 6. The effort was expected to take several more days, but for the first time since the collapse, the rescuers were progressing steadily without frequent interruptions.
    If the third hole turns up nothing, a fourth will be drilled in the center of the mine, said Bob Murray, chief of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner and operator of the Crandall Canyon mine. After that, he said, ‘‘we’re running out of possibilities.’’
    Crews already have drilled two holes and fitted a camera down one of them, but they have yet to learn the miners’ fate.
    The camera’s ghostly images revealed only one indication of a miner’s presence: a tool bag for hammers, wrenches and chisels hanging from a post, 3.4 miles from the entrance and more than 1,800 feet underground.
    ‘‘It indicates we’re very close to where the miners were working,’’ said Murray.
    Crews late Monday began drilling a third hole, aimed at the rear of the mine. They were about 515 feet through the mountain as of midmorning Tuesday, leaving about 900 feet to go. The rig required more roads to be built to reach the location on a steep mountainside.
    ‘‘They’re working as rapidly as they can,’’ Murray said at a late-morning news conference. It is ‘‘very difficult steep terrain. But this is where the miners are, where we think we are, below that.’’
    The collapse was thought to have pushed ventilated air into a pocket at the rear of the mine, where the miners may have fled when their escape routes were cut off by rubble, said Richard Stickler, chief of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
    Murray showed video from his latest trip to the rescue effort in the mine, showing how workers are reinforcing the mine shaft so crews can dig horizontally toward the trapped miners’ presumed location. That dig was about 1,200 feet from its target, and was expected to take several more days.
    ‘‘The rehab work underground continues to go slow,’’ Stickler said. ‘‘It’s very difficult.’’
    Murray and Stickler said the new videos and photographs revealed no additional signs of the miners. The photographs were taken to help the families understand the conditions workers are encountering.
    If crews must drill a fourth hole, it is possible that rubble in the mine’s main entrance could be cleared by then, Murray said.
    The mine partially collapsed under the weight of a shifting mountain and blew out the walls of mine shafts. Reinforced ceilings were left mostly intact, however. About 5 feet of headroom remained in the deeper mine shafts.
    ‘‘We see a lot of open area. We see good height. Space is what they need and we saw a lot of space,’’ said Al Davis, who heads up MSHA’s Western operations.
    Other video images taken Sunday showed a twisted conveyer belt, pipes and dripping water.
    A microphone lowered down the first, 2 1/2-inch hole picked up no sound, and air samples sucked up the hole revealed just over 7 percent oxygen — not enough to sustain life. The hole is now being used to pump 2,000 cubic feet of fresh air a minute into the mine, Stickler said.
    Mining rescues after eight or more days are not unheard of. In May 2006, two miners were rescued after being trapped for 14 days following a collapse at an Australian mine.
    In 2002, nine coal miners were rescued after surviving eight days in a mine in northwestern China. In 1968, six miners were rescued after 10 days in West Virginia.
    Murray has blamed an earthquake for the collapse, although seismologists say there was no quake.
    ———
    Associated Press writers Chris Kahn, Alicia A. Caldwell and Brock Vergakis in Huntington and Jennifer Talhelm in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report. AP researcher Rhonda Shafner also contributed.

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