Rescuers will only be sent inside an unstable coal mine in which six men are missing if there is an indication that someone is alive, but the trapped miners are likely entombed in the mountain, an official said Monday.
“I don’t know whether the miners will be found, but I’m not optimistic they will be found alive,” said Bob Murray, chief executive of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner of the mine.
Murray said he told the families their loved ones would likely remain buried in the mine. “Their reception to me was probably not good. But at some time, the reality must sink in, and I did it as compassionately as I possibly could,” he said.
Safety consultants brought in since the Aug. 6 collapse have determined that the mountain mine is still shaking and shifting, said Richard Stickler, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
There are no plans to continue tunneling underground into the mine, he said. Three rescue workers were killed and six injured last week when the shaft they were working in collapsed because the mountain shifted.
“The significant risk is unacceptable to send mine rescue teams underground 1,500, 1,600 feet for the purpose of exploration,” he said. “While there is significant risk, if we were to locate a live miner underground, we think it would justify to send a rescue capsule down.”
A hole would be drilled so that a capsule could be lowered into the mountain if life is detected, he said.
Families feel betrayed
The statements came after two days of criticism from the miners’ family members. They have pleaded for a hole to be drilled for a rescue capsule and said they felt betrayed by officials who had once vowed to keep searching until the men were found.
“My brother is trapped underground and I’m hearing that they’re basically giving up and that’s unacceptable,” Steve Allred, the brother of one trapped miner, said earlier in the day. “One way or the other we’ve got to have closure.”
The capsule had been considered a last, best option since the rescue tunnel collapsed. Such capsules have been used to save miners in other disasters, but the men in the Crandall Canyon mine were thought to be more than 1,500 feet deeper than in previous rescues.
Mine owners and federal officials have insisted for nearly two weeks that the men might be alive.
But repeated efforts to signal the men have been met with silence, and air readings from a fourth narrow hole drilled more than 1,500 feet into the mountainside detected insufficient oxygen to support life in that part of the mine.
A fifth hole was in the process of being drilled and was expected to be finished Tuesday evening.
Owner lowers expectations
Murray, faced with a backlash over dimming hopes, earlier Monday broke his self-imposed silence to issue e-mails lowering expectations.
He issued an initial statement that promised “we will not be deterred, and we will not leave this mountain until we find our people.”
That was followed a few hours later by another release, saying: “We will not leave this mountain until we achieve a resolution to this tragedy.”
On Monday night, Murray spent more than 45 minutes at a church where some families were gathered.
Murray’s e-mail said the “efforts in the digging and recovering have left me such that I cannot be a good spokesman to the public media on behalf of our efforts to rescue the original six miners.”
Bob Ferriter, a former federal mine safety engineer who teaches at the Colorado School of Mines, said the rescue effort has stuck to a predictable script: Hope and optimism that trapped miners will be found alive, followed by a reality check, followed by a bout of recriminations and finger-pointing.
Realization sets in
In the first hours and days of a rescue attempt, “everybody is really excited because there is the possibility of finding them. But as time goes on, the realization sets in that these guys are not alive. The longer it goes, the greater the realization that the chances of finding anyone alive are less and less and less,” he said.
The decision to call off the rescue effort rests with the mine’s owners in consultation with Stickler.
“There’s no formula, no check-off list. You gather all the information and rely on your experience and listen to the advice of the people you have there. You have to make a hard decision,” Ferriter said.
But Sonny J. Olsen, an attorney acting as spokesmen for the families, said the families have not reached a “grieving point” and had faith that Kerry Allred, a veteran miner, could be keeping the men alive.
“If he survived the initial cave-in, the families are very confident that he himself would have led them to areas where they would have had enough oxygen, and where they could have sustained themselves for weeks,” Olsen said.
Prayers and blessings
In fact, emblems of hope were everywhere in the surrounding communities where signs continued to go up asking for prayers and blessings for the miners.
But even then, people struggled with their own inner debate over the issue.
“There is no right answer,” said Sue Dirks, who painted her bookstore windows with “Pray for all miners.”
“If it was my family in there, I’d want them to get them out. But if it’s my family going in there to get them, you know, I don’t know.”