Despite three weeks of drilling and digging that have revealed no signs of life from six men trapped inside a collapsed coal mine, officials said Sunday the search was continuing.
Federal and mine company officials said a seventh borehole was being punched into the Crandall Canyon mine and that a special robotic camera was being lowered into a hole drilled during previous efforts to find the men.
The camera is similar to one used to search within the wreckage of the World Trade Center in New York City after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. It can take images in the darkened cavern from about 50 feet away with the help of a 200-watt light, can travel 1,000 feet from the end of the test hole and has some ability to move around the rubble, officials said.
“We’re very excited about it. The families are thrilled to hear this,” said Colin King, a lawyer for the miners’ families.
Images from the camera were not expected until Monday.
Robin Murphy, director of the Institute for Safety Security Rescue Technology at the University of South Florida, said her camera’s ability to obtain images in the mine was a long shot. She said it was not clear whether the camera would fit all the way down the hole and into the mine, and that debris in the shaft could obscure any images.
“There’s mud, there’s rocks, there’s things that make it unfavorable,” Murphy said.
The Crandall Canyon miners were last heard from about 3 a.m. Aug. 6, just before a thunderous shudder inside the mountain cracked the ribs of the mine and filled passageways with debris, cutting off an exit route. It’s never been clear if they survived the cave-in.
Digging through the rubble-filed mine shaft was halted after a second collapse killed three rescuers and injured six others Aug. 16.
Sunday’s announcement came a day after crews penetrated the mine with a sixth borehole, finding a debris-filled area too small for the men to survive, officials said.
“There could be no sign of life in such a condition,” mine co-owner Bob Murray said Sunday.
Murray said the seventh hole would be drilled into the kitchen area of the mine, an area where miners are trained to flee in case of collapse. “We haven’t given up hope,” he said.
Murray had previously said the sixth borehole, drilled more than 1,700 feet deep, would be the last before sealing the mine.
“We believe the right thing to do is to put another hole down and try to locate these men and in discussions with MSHA that was agreed to and that is what has been done,” said Rob Moore, vice president of Murray Energy Corp.
The seventh hole was being started Sunday and officials did not estimate when it may be completed. Previous holes have taken about two days to hit the mine shaft.
Cesar Sanchez, brother of trapped miner Manuel Sanchez, said the prospect of a seventh hole encouraged the families, who had been outraged when told that the search might end.
“It brings the hope back up. We needed that and we’re going to keep going until we find these guys,” he said.
Murphy said the robotic camera will lowered into either the third or fourth boreholes drilled, neither of which had given any sign of the miners.
Horizontal digging through the rubble-filed mine shaft was halted after a second collapse killed three rescuers and injured six others Aug. 16.
Federal Mine Health and Safety Administration officials say the instability of the mountain makes it too risky to resume underground digging or to drill a hole widen enough to send a manned rescue capsule into the mine.
Seismologists describe the mountain as crumbling in upon itself, bursting support pillars as it shifts in a phenomena known as mountain bumps.
MSHA officials have not specifically said they’ll close the mine, but have grown increasingly pessimistic about the chances of finding the men alive or even recovering their bodies.
Bruce Hill, president and chief executive officer of UtahAmerican Energy, part owner in Crandall Canyon, said there was a possibility the mine company could continue to drill holes even after the completion of the seventh.
Murray said Sunday that he was temporarily shutting down another one of his Utah coal mines in nearby Carbon County and will bring in outside engineers to study its safety.
Murray said the move affects 170 miners, and that he has given them the option to work at his other mines in Illinois and Ohio. He has given the miners until noon Monday to make a decision.
“If they choose this, there will be no one laid off and no one will miss a paycheck,” he said.
Murray said he has told the miners he expects the studies to take about a month but warned it could be longer.