Image: Glen Gotcher
YOUNG KWAK  /  AP
Glen Gotcher, a 35-year Lucky Friday Mine employee sits in a bar in Mullen, Idaho, on April 16. Rescue teams Saturday cleared debris from a collapsed tunnel at a northern Idaho silver mine to find a miner missing more than a mile underground, officials said.
updated 4/18/2011 8:49:13 PM ET 2011-04-19T00:49:13

A rescue team faced mounting obstacles Monday as they tried to reach an Idaho silver miner trapped a mile underground: They will need more equipment, need to clear more than twice as much debris and dislodge boulders that stand in the way.

The effort to reach 30-year mining veteran Larry Marek had stretched into a third day after he was trapped in the collapse about 5:30 p.m. Friday in the Lucky Friday mine while his brother, another mine worker, escaped. Officials did not know Marek's condition, and they have not had contact with him since the collapse in the Idaho Panhandle's Silver Valley.

In a span of 12 hours, workers engaged in the time-consuming task of shoring up tunnels to prevent further collapse had placed timber supports in only an additional four feet.

"The amount of work needed to do the four feet, given the increase in height, is tremendous," said Melanie Hennessey, a spokesman for miner owner Hecla Mining, adding the speed of the advance depends on the material rescuers encounter.

"It's been very different every day," she said. "That's because of the complexity of the fallen ground."

Hecla Mining is in the midst of expanding the historic Lucky Friday Mine as silver prices have soared about 38 percent this year. The company is spending $200 million to increase silver production by about 60 percent and extend the mine life beyond 2030.

The Lucky Friday Mine is tucked into the forested mountains of Mullan, a historic mining town of 840 people in Idaho's panhandle. Like mining areas around the world, it's not immune to accidents, some of them tragic.

Last June, a miner was killed in the Galena Mine in nearby Silverton after a rock slab fell on him.

And in 1972, 91 miners were killed in a terrible fire about 3,700 feet underground inside the Sunshine Mine between Kellogg and Wallace.

Hecla Mining officials said Monday workers had advanced a total of 39 feet into the collapsed area, which could be as long as 75 feet. The ground that fell is up to 25 feet high and 20 feet wide, more than twice as high previously thought. Hecla officials said that's made shoring up the tunnel to make it safe for rescue workers more complex and time-consuming.

Workers, who had lowered a remote-controlled digging machine called a mucker to speed rescue efforts, also were awaiting the arrival of an electrical component before they could employ a larger-capacity digger.

Hecla is also deploying a diamond drill to determine if there is an open area behind the cave-in that could have provided Marek with refuge. It's unclear if the entire 75-foot section collapsed, or only a portion of it, possibly leaving Marek trapped on the other side, officials said.

A two-inch hole from the drill could send air underground, though it may take as long as two days to bore through about 185 feet of rock to reach the area thought to have collapsed, Hennessey said.

It's unclear if Marek had communication equipment with him at the time of the accident; it could have been left in a vehicle he was using at the time.

Marek and his brother, another mine worker, had just finished watering down blasted-out rock and ore on existing mining areas when the collapse occurred about 75 feet from the end of the 6,150-foot deep tunnel, according to the company.

The family asked for the media to respect its privacy as it awaits news.

Hecla said all mining activity has been halted for the rescue effort. Officials said they will focus on how the collapse occurred once the rescue is complete.

The mine employs roughly 275 workers, about 50 of whom were underground in various parts of the mine when the collapse occurred, company spokeswoman Melanie Hennessey said.

On its website, Hecla describes itself as the oldest U.S.-based precious metals mining company in North America and the largest silver producer in the U.S. It is headquartered in Coeur d'Alene.

Hecla currently produces silver from two mines, Greens Creek and Lucky Friday, a mine that has been operational since 1942.

Hecla appears to have a good record of health and safety at Lucky Friday.

The mine has reported no fatalities dating back to 2000, according to a Mine Safety and Health Administration database. The federal regulator has cited the mine for violations, but none in the last year specifically tied to the kind of accident that occurred Friday.

In 2009, the company agreed to pay $177,500 in fines for violating federal clean water laws at Lucky Friday. EPA investigators said the mine exceeded discharge levels for metals such as lead, zinc, cadmium and suspended solids between September 2008 and February 2009. Discharges flow into the South Fork Coeur d'Alene River above the town of Mullan.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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