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Rescuers find void behind rubble at Idaho mine

A pocket of open space behind tons of collapsed rock and debris has added some optimism to the search for a missing silver miner, despite dangerous conditions that have delayed rescuers.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

A pocket of open space behind tons of collapsed rock and debris has added some optimism to the search for a missing silver miner, despite dangerous conditions that forced rescuers to take a much longer route toward where he is trapped.

Since Friday's cave-in, workers have been digging more than 6,000 feet underground through the boulders, twisted wires and broken concrete that collapsed inside the Lucky Friday Mine.

They finished drilling a 2-inch-wide, 180-foot-long hole on Tuesday, Hecla Mining Co. said in a written statement. The view from a borehole camera confirmed there is a void in the area where Larry "Pete" Marek had been working, but the company reported no sign of the 53-year-old.

"We have completed the drill hole, which was 180 feet in length. A borehole camera put into this hole has enabled us to verify that there is a void within the area, although we cannot at this time estimate the size or extent of the void," the statement said.

"The importance here is that they were able to find a void, which means there's space, there's open space, which is encouraging," said Stephany Bales, a Hecla spokeswoman.

The new hole is the latest of several attempts from different angles to try to find Marek.

Rescue teams had been using a remote-controlled digging machine called a mucker to advance 39 feet into the collapsed area, which is estimated to be as much 75 feet long and 25 feet deep. But unstable conditions weren't allowing workers to safely shore up that tunnel's walls.

It was taking too long, so crews came up with another option.

They started digging from a safer set-off point that will force them to blast through 220 feet of rock with a jumbo drill, while buttressing the newly exposed ground to keep it from collapsing, too. That, too, has been slow: Crews had advanced through about 24 feet in 24 hours, although the pace could accelerate, Bales said Tuesday night.

"We'll see how they do now that they're in progress, they're under way and moving forward at this point," she said.

Workers also were getting ready to start burrowing toward the collapsed area from yet another point about 180 feet away.

Officials hoped drilling the 2-inch hole would find an open area that could have provided Marek refuge behind the cave-in, and it also would allow fresh air to get in.

Besides that 180-foot-long hole completed Tuesday, workers also bored a 46-foot-long hole through the collapsed tunnel's rubble that gave them more information about the voids within the obstructed passageway.

Bales said she hoped to have more details Wednesday about what the rescuers, who were toiling more than a mile underground for 12 hours at a time, were seeing.

Mine officials said the haphazard nature of the collapse means there are likely pockets in the debris, so somebody trapped inside could still be alive.

Company officials said the conditions underground are unstable, as rescue workers encountered a debris field laden with boulders, twisted wires, mesh and broken concrete that had been used to shore up the tunnel before it caved in.

The company said its new effort would include blasting the rock with a jumbo drill, removing the material and then buttressing the newly exposed ground to keep it from collapsing, too.

Before Tuesday's change in plans, workers had been using a remote-controlled digging machine called a mucker, advancing a total of 39 feet into the collapsed area, estimated at as long as 75 feet.

The process of shoring up the caved-in tunnel behind the excavation, to make it safe for rescuers to advance, had been consuming valuable time, with supports placed in only about 4 more feet of tunnel over a span of about 12 hours. Rescuers on Monday more than doubled their estimate on the volume of the collapse: from 10 feet high to 25 feet high.

In the end, however, they could go no further without risking their own lives.

"Rescue operations have been suspended from the west side ... due to worsening ground conditions," Louviere said in a press release. "Further mucking will not be taking place in the caved area at this time."

Brother escaped
It's unclear if Marek, a 12-year Hecla employee, had communication equipment at the time of the accident. It could have been left in a vehicle he was using at the time. He likely had water, his lunch pail and protective equipment with him.

Marek and his brother, Mike Marek, another mine worker, had just finished watering down blasted-out rock and ore on existing mining areas when the collapse occurred about 75 feet from the end of the 6,150-foot deep tunnel, according to the company. His brother was able to escape.

They had been working at roughly opposite ends of the stope, or active mining area, when the collapse occurred, with Larry working furthest from the exit.

The family has not commented. Federal officials said many of the family's members work at the mine.

All mining activity has been halted for the rescue effort, Hecla said. Officials said they will focus on how the collapse occurred once the rescue is complete.

The mine in Mullan employs roughly 275 workers, about 50 of whom were underground in various parts of the mine when the collapse occurred, Hennessey said.

On its website, Hecla describes itself as the oldest U.S.-based precious metals mining company in North America and the largest silver producer in the U.S. The Coeur d'Alene company currently produces silver from two mines, Greens Creek and Lucky Friday, which has been operational since 1942.

Silver prices have soared about 38 percent this year, and Hecla is spending $200 million to increase its production of the metal by about 60 percent. The upgrades will extend the life of the Lucky Friday mine beyond 2030.

Hecla appears to have a good record of health and safety at Lucky Friday.

The mine has reported no fatalities dating back to 2000, according to a Mine Safety and Health Administration database. The federal regulator has cited the mine for violations but none in the last year specifically tied to the kind of accident that occurred Friday.

Like mining areas around the world, northern Idaho is not immune to accidents, some of them tragic. Last June, a miner was killed in the Galena Mine in nearby Silverton after a rock slab fell on him.

In 1972, 91 miners were killed in a fire about 3,700 feet underground inside the Sunshine Mine between Kellogg and Wallace.