Relatives of six men trapped in the depths of a mountain coal mine were once content to let their mine boss speak for them.
But after Bob Murray offended them at several meetings, and now that he has said the rescue efforts will soon halt, the families have grown more comfortable going public with their outrage.
Now their community is coming to their aid, putting aside differences and putting up signs in front windows and on sandwich boards outside restaurants, begging the mine owner not to give up. One group has even floated the long-shot idea of digging a rescue hole of its own.
The federal government, which would have to give approval, has said it isn’t going to happen. But it captures the frustration of a community holding out hope that they can save the miners — or at least recover their bodies — despite appearances that those in power may have given up.
As for an independently dug rescue hole, “I don’t think we could entertain that sort of thing,” said Allyn Davis, who oversees Western operations for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. “It’s a safety issue, and I just don’t see that as a possibility.”
The six men have been missing since the Aug. 6 cave-in that Murray, the Crandall Canyon Mine co-owner, insists was caused by an earthquake. Seismologists say the mountain is crumbling upon itself, bursting support pillars as it shifts in a phenomenon known as a mountain bump — something that killed three rescuers last week. No one has been allowed into the mine underground since then.
Officials have continued drilling narrow holes into the mountain to lower cameras to look for the men and test for breathable air. The sixth and final hole should be finished Saturday. If there’s no sign of life, the search will likely be called off — the men sealed in the coal mine more than 1,500 feet beneath the surface.
But families and friends of the men have raised their voices, accusing Murray of abandoning a promise to find the men, dead or alive.
Some critics are calling for a hole dug to accommodate a person-size capsule that has been used in other mine rescues to pull people to the surface. But officials say the men are too far down, the mountain too unstable.
'Leave no man behind'
So messages of hope blanket store windows. And hardly a night passes without a fundraising event for the families. Late this week, fliers appeared under car windshield wipers, stuffed in mail slots and hung in windows: “Leave No Man Behind,” they declared.
It’s not clear who is leading the efforts, but the flier called for area residents to come support the “wives and families of our 6 trapped miners” at a gathering Friday night in the nearby town of Helper.
“Community Support is desperately needed drilling the 36” Hole for a Capsule to Continue the Search and Rescue of our miners,” it read.
An attorney for the mine company did not immediately comment on the push for a community-led rescue effort.
“It’s ‘leave no man behind’ because people know it could have been them,” said Kristen Potter, a Huntington resident, after she learned of the flier.
The drive is typical of area communities in times of need, she said, adding that she recently attended an auction to raise money for one of the miners’ families. Every time a quilt was won, the person would turn it back in so it could be auctioned again. Some $17,000 was raised.
Searching for 'a positive ray of hope'
John Jones, a Helper City Council member, is one of many people in the area wrestling with the balance between continuing the search for the men and guarding the safety of mine rescuers.
“Do we take somebody else’s father, uncle or grandfather and send them down in that hole and take the chance? If there’s a positive ray of hope at all, I would personally go down that hole, and I’m not a coal miner,” said Jones, whose central Utah city was hosting a benefit auction Friday night. “Everybody on both sides needs peace. It’s just how do you give it to them?”
At this point, Murray does not appear to be able to deliver that comfort.
The man who once dominated news conferences on efforts to rescue the miners has been absent from the twice-daily family briefings since Monday night. He had a shouting match with Jackie Taylor, whose daughter dates one of the missing men. Taylor said Murray has been rude to families and is callously backing away from his promise.
Murray has said that once the sixth hole is drilled, it will bring him closure “that I could never get them out alive,” while acknowledging it may not bring closure to the miners’ families.
On Friday, a U.S. House committee announced plans to look into the accident. A day earlier, U.S. senators said they had similar plans and requested documents about the mine.
Meanwhile, communities in central Utah’s coal belt have rallied around the families as best they can.
Potter said she went to a recent church service conducted partly in Spanish. She locked eyes with a relative of one of the three trapped miners who are Hispanic. There was no need to try to bridge their language barrier.
“At that meeting, I had tears in my eyes, and she had tears in her eyes, and you just felt that connection. To me, that’s a miracle, how we’ve come together,” Potter said.