CHRIS KAHN Associated Press Writer HUNTINGTON, Utah
The pace of rescuers' efforts to dig out six miners trapped underground picked up "substantially" Monday evening, with miners able to claw continuously at loose rubble that nearly fills a main passageway, a top mining executive said. For the first time since the Aug. 6 collapse, the rescuers were progressing steadily forward, in contrast to the frequent interruptions that have characterized the rescue effort so far, said Bob Murray, chief of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner and operator of the Crandall Canyon mine. "The progress underground has picked up substantially," Murray told The Associated Press Monday evening after he delivered a private briefing for family members. The effort could take several more days, but Murray said his miners were moving quickly by 6:30 MDT Monday, when they had removed about 670 feet of the 2,000 feet of rubble they were expecting to encounter. Murray also reported that drill crews were starting to bore a third hole into the mine in an effort to locate the missing men. Ghostly video images taken Sunday from another drill hole showed a miner's tool bag, shards of broken rock, a twisted conveyor belt and dripping water but no signs of any of the six miners. "It's absolutely heartbreaking that we haven't found them alive," said Murray, adding that he still considered the work a rescue, not a recovery. The video showed faint images only as far as about 15 feet away. Murray said the tool bag belongs to one of the miners, who may have been hundreds of feet away when a thunderous collapse blew out the walls of mine shafts while leaving reinforced ceilings intact. The images were released as rescuers prepared to drill a third hole into a far reach of the mine where officials believe a pocket of good air could sustain the miners. A 2 1/2- inch-wide hole and a nearly 9-inch-wide hole drilled last week have found no sign of life where the miners were working when a collapse hit the Crandall Canyon mine Aug. 6. Twelve of the 80 miners working on the rescue have asked to be reassigned because they were frightened by what Murray "tectonic activity." "We have had some miners that have been working in the rescue effort that have asked to be relieved. They've been somewhat frightened." Meanwhile, suggestions of trouble at the mine earlier this year surfaced in a memo from an engineering firm to the mine operators concerning earth movement that damaged a different underground area. The video was shown earlier in the day to families of the miners, who gather daily at a school in Huntington to be briefed by rescue officials. "We spent considerable time with them explaining all the detail," said Richard Stickler, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. "The families are holding up better than you can imagine," Murray said. "The strength of these people is amazing." Al Davis of the MSHA said the video showed what appeared to be five to seven feet of vertical space. He said the view was basically what was seen in earlier attempts with the camera, but with better resolution. "We had better light, but light is still the problem," Davis said. Rescuers were encouraged, however, he said. "We see a lot of open area. We see good height. Space is what they need and we saw a lot of space," he said. The new 8 5/8-inch hole was to be drilled to an area to which the miners might have fled after finding escape routes blocked. Stickler said the concussion of the original earth movement may have trapped good air there. The new drilling, believed to be about 1,300 feet from the second drilled hole, required 1,300 feet of new road to move the rig. It was uncertain when the drilling would begin. Rescue leaders have said there is no reason to give up hope, but the increasing emotional wear on the relatives has been evident in recent days. 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, just days after a group of 15 miners were pulled out after five days. Murray has blamed an earthquake for the collapse, although seismologists say there was no quake. The mine sprawls underneath a mountain in a forest 140 miles south of Salt Lake City. The drilling is an attempt to locate the miners while rescuers slowly clear a blocked horizontal access route to where the men were working 3.4 miles from the entrance. The blockage began about 2,000 feet from the miners' presumed location and as of Monday afternoon the rescuers had advanced 645 feet. Officials said progress was slow because of the need to install extensive roof and wall supports in the tunnel. The first two holes were drilled from positions on the sides of the mountain above the mine. A small, fast rig was hoisted onto the mountain by a helicopter, while a road had to be carved to bring up the larger rig. Both had to bore more than 1,800 feet deep. A microphone lowered down the 2 1/2- inch hole heard nothing, and air samples sucked up the hole revealed just over 7 percent oxygen, not enough to sustain life. Air was then pumped down. After the larger drill finished the second hole, rescuers banged on the steel shaft to try to signal the miners. There was no response, and rescuers began using the camera.