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Search for 6 Utah miners plods ahead; co-worker recalls final moments in crumbling mountain

    ORANGEVILLE, Utah — Surrounded by thick dust and the howl of a crumbling mountain, Jameson Ward had only a moment to decide: Go back and help his fellow miners or get out?
    ‘‘It was like having your brights on in a fog,’’ Ward said, recalling the Aug. 6 collapse in the Crandall Canyon mine that trapped six men. ‘‘I almost turned right back around to go in there, but then I figured, better not go into a bad situation by myself.’’
    On Wednesday, nine days after the cave-in, concern that would-be rescuers might get hurt trying to reach the trapped men was one of many factors that kept the search effort hamstrung.
    ‘‘We don’t want to lose 15 more going after six,’’ Ward said. ‘‘But there has to be a way to go faster. It’s just too slow.’’
    Ward, a 24-year-old mechanic, said he was about a quarter-mile from the trapped men when he heard the thunderous collapse. The force was unlike anything he had experienced before, with the rushing air nearly pushing his pickup truck sideways, he said.
    ‘‘This was like a whistling air, lots and lots gushing toward you,’’ he said Tuesday in his first detailed interview since the cave-in. ‘‘I went nose down and just heard it howl, thinking, ‘What the hell was that?’’’
    He drove toward the mine entrance, soon rendezvousing with three others. They alerted mine officials and headed back inside with rescue equipment, he said.
    ‘‘I think I did everything I could,’’ said Ward, who has three years of experience. ‘‘I just hope everybody’s OK, honestly, that’s all I can do.’’
    On Wednesday, the search plodded forward, with mine officials hoping to break through a third bore hole that, with the help of a video camera, might finally yield some evidence of the men. Drilling started on the 1,415-foot-deep hole late Monday.
    Bob Murray, chief of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner and operator of the Crandall Canyon mine, left the mine area early Wednesday to brief family members in Huntington, then returned without speaking to reporters. A late-morning news conference was postponed indefinitely, and federal mine regulators were seen heading back toward Huntington.
    Two previous holes drilled turned up no sign of the miners, except for some abandoned equipment seen when a camera was lowered into the second hole. The third hole is being drilled about 1,300 feet west of the second one.
    Crews also were digging out the main mine entrance to reach the miners, but that process, made slow by safety concerns and the huge amount of debris, could take up to another week.
    ‘‘It’s not fast enough for me,’’ Murray said. ‘‘It’s very painful.’’
    The mine may have been made more dangerous by what Murray acknowledged was decades of digging using retreat mining, a common though sometimes dangerous method in which miners yank out a mine’s pillars, grabbing the last of the coal.
    Murray said the retreat mining took place before he took over the mine a year ago, and that federal regulators and an outside mining engineering firm had signed off on the canyon’s mining operation. Murray said no retreat mining was taking place at the time of the collapse, which he insists was triggered by an earthquake.
    Government seismologists say there was no earthquake and that readings on seismometers actually came from the collapse.
    Ward, the son of a miner, said the collapse won’t keep him from staying at his $28-per-hour job. But he feels guilty about one of the trapped miners, Brandon Phillips, a neighbor and childhood friend who got the job with Ward’s help.
    ‘‘I’ll never get anybody a job ever again,’’ he said.
    Ward’s bosses on Sunday ordered him to take a couple of days’ rest, but between puffs on a cigarette on his front porch Tuesday, he said he would rather help in rescue efforts than ‘‘sit home and dwell.’’
    ‘‘I feel bad, feel horrible,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s why I’d rather be at work. If I can keep my mind off it, I’m fine.’’
    ———
    Associated Press writers Chris Kahn and Alicia A. Caldwell in Huntington, Utah, and Jennifer Talhem in Washington contributed to this report.

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