Signs of prayer and support for six trapped miners remained on display Saturday as residents of central Utah’s coal belt struggled with the realization that the men would not be found alive.
“It’s a hard thing. Some are coping with it better than others,” said Colin King, a spokesman and lawyer for families of the six miners trapped nearly four weeks ago in a collapse. “They’re still dealing with the fact they have to accept now that these miners are not going to be recovered any time soon — that they’ve died, in all likelihood.”
Rescue efforts at the Crandall Canyon Mine were suspended indefinitely Friday.
A thunderous mountain shudder early on Aug. 6 caused mine ribs to shatter, trapping Kerry Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Hernandez, Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips and Manuel Sanchez. It is not known whether they survived the initial collapse.
Three rescuers working underground were killed in a second collapse Aug. 16, bringing an abrupt halt to tunnel-clearing efforts to reach the miners.
Seven holes, no signs of life
Rescue workers drilled seven holes deep into the mountain in search of the men more than 1,500 feet underground but found no signs of life. After a robotic camera became stuck in mud in one hole Friday, federal officials said they had run out of options and told families the search was ending.
The announcement ended hope that the men would be found alive or that their bodies would be retrieved any time soon, if ever. Federal officials said it’s too dangerous to drill a hole large enough to send a rescue worker down into the mine if there’s no possibility of finding survivors.
“Sadly, there is no remaining hope of finding these miners alive,” MSHA chief Richard Stickler said in a statement Saturday.
It was a difficult blow for people in Utah’s coal country, where messages of hope adorned cars, homes and businesses throughout Carbon and Emery counties and where residents have gathered for prayer services and vigils in the weeks since the collapse.
“The signs are still up, and I think they will be for a few more days,” said Julie Jones, a Huntington City Council member. “We’re not going to forget these families.”
Bush lauds community’s strength
President Bush issued a statement Saturday praising central Utah’s coal community for inspiring the nation with its “incredible strength and courage in the face of tremendous loss.”
A nondenominational memorial service for the six men on the football field at a junior high school was being planned for Sept. 9. A fundraiser is planned for Sept. 15.
“Even when we got the news last night, even though in our hearts we knew this would come, it was still hard. But yet, it is time for healing. It is time for the healing process to start and the community is ready for that,” Jones said.
Investigations to come
As the community begins to heal its emotional scars, the federal government will begin investigating the circumstances that led to the initial cave-in.
A Mine Safety and Health Administration team will begin arriving in Huntington, about 120 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, on Tuesday to began the investigation, said Rich Kulczewski, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor, which oversees MSHA.
The investigation will involve people who have no ties to MSHA’s Western district, which oversees safety at the mine.
They include Timothy Watkins, assistant district manager in Kentucky, who has ventilation and retreat mining experience; Gary Smith, a supervisor in Pennsylvania who has roof-control expertise; and Joseph O’Donnell, based in MSHA’s district office in Alabama.
Mine owner’s actions questioned
Labor Secretary Elaine Chao has also ordered an independent team of mine-safety experts to review MSHA’s handling of the Crandall Canyon accident. The review will look at MSHA’s actions before the collapse and during the subsequent rescue operations.
The newly formed state Mine Safety Commission is also beginning an investigation to determine whether Utah should begin regulating the mines, which it hasn’t done since 1977.
Gov. Jon Huntsman appointed the commission after public disputes with mine co-owner Bob Murray, who Huntsman at one point said wasn’t doing enough to retrieve the miners’ bodies and had been disrespectful to the miners’ families.
Some members of Congress also criticized Murray for dominating news conferences at the beginning of the rescue efforts, a role designated for MSHA representatives. Murray later deferred to federal officials and his employees in news conferences.
After the three rescue workers were killed, Murray disappeared from public view for a few days. He later said he was devastated by the experience and had been under care of a doctor.
Murray did not respond Saturday to a request for comment from The Associated Press.
King said a lawsuit will likely be filed on behalf of the families, but he didn’t know how soon or who would be named in it.
Late Friday, Huntsman issued a statement saying that the most important thing is for the families to feel at peace with the decision to end rescue efforts.
“These families, and the whole community, have endured so much throughout this devastating tragedy. Each family must determine their own way of gaining closure,” he said.