Ghostly video images from deep underground showed a tool bag, shards of broken rock, a twisted conveyor belt and dripping water but no signs of life as the arduous search for six missing miners stretched Monday into a second week.
Even as the grainy footage played for reporters, the mine’s co-owner insisted there was reason to believe the miners could be alive — the mine’s roof was intact, there was abundant open space and plenty of drinkable water.
“There are many, many reasons to have hope still,” said Bob Murray, head of Murray Energy Corp. and co-owner of the mine.
But he acknowledged the search, which has been interrupted by additional cave-ins and two 1,800-foot holes that came up empty and prolonged silence from underground, has not gone as smoothly as planned.
“Progress is slow — way too slow.”
Meanwhile, memos from an engineering firm revealed concern about structural problems at the mine as early as March, when a different underground area was damaged.
Rescuers planned to drill a third hole deep into the mine. A 2½-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 early Aug. 6.
Mine owners and safety experts said at an afternoon briefing they are mulling the possibility of drilling a fourth hole, but the decision will depend on what rescue personnel find from the third hole.
'I've accepted all possibilities'
The video was recorded Sunday evening by a camera dropped into a shaft more than 1,800 feet deep. It showed water dripping in front of the lens as light faintly illuminated objects — a chain, a twisted conveyor belt, a tool bag — 10 to 15 feet away.
“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 of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Murray said he believes the tool bag belongs to one of the miners, who may have been hundreds of feet away from the bag while working.
Davis said the view was basically what was seen in earlier attempts with the camera, but with better resolution and better lighting. Still, the camera only saw about 15 feet when it was lowered into the mine overnight.
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 to begin sometime Monday.
The increasing emotional strain on the relatives has been evident in recent days. The son of missing miner Kerry Allred appeared sad and tired during an interview.
“I’ve accepted all possibilities,” said Cody Allred, 32.
Family members have previously talked to news media after the private official briefings at a school in Huntington. On Monday, sheriff’s deputies moved reporters far from the school after journalists gathered around MSHA chief Richard Stickler as he left the briefing.
Rescues after 8 days possible
Mining rescues after eight or more days are not unheard of.
Murray has blamed an earthquake for the collapse, although seismologists say there was no quake.
Twelve of the 80 miners working on the rescue have asked to be reassigned because they were frightened by what Murray called “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.”
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.
Slow progress for safety
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.
A microphone lowered down the 2½-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.
Mine damage found in March
According to a memo for the operators of the mine, structural problems caused heavy damage to two entries in the mine in March and led the company to abandon mining in a northern section.
But the company did not give up on the mine. Instead, it hired Agapito Associates Inc., a Grand Junction, Colo., engineering firm, to analyze how to safely mine the southern sections.
The operators were mining directly across from the area that was damaged in March when last week’s collapse occurred.
Agapito’s April 18 memo to mine co-owner and operator UtahAmerican Energy Inc. said the operators were retreat mining — a common but sometimes dangerous practice that involves pulling out leftover sections and pillars of coal that hold up the roof.
Although Murray has denied that the company was retreat mining at the time of last week’s accident, MSHA officials have said they approved a plan for the mine to engage in retreat mining.
Murray said Sunday that it was Agapito that recommended Crandall Canyon’s mining plan and he asserted that it was “perfectly safe.”
“We’ve had a once-in-a-lifetime disaster here,” Murray said. “This has not happened before. We have never seen seismic activity as occurred in this case.”