HUNTINGTON, Utah -- Rescuers drilled and smashed through solid rock yesterday in an attempt to reach six coal miners trapped deep underground by a massive pre-dawn cave-in.
Searchers said they were within 1,700 feet of the miners but were still uncertain whether the men were alive. Workers have not been able to contact the miners since the collapse, which was reported about an hour after seismology scales registered an earthquake in the region.
Company officials and hundreds of fellow workers at the Crandall Canyon mine - 140 miles south of Salt Lake City - focused their efforts throughout the day on trying to reach the six men, believed to be about 1,500 feet below the surface and 3.4 miles from the mine's entrance.
The identities of the miners were not released.
"There's nothing on my mind right now but getting those miners out," said Robert E. Murray, chairman of Murray Energy Corp. of Cleveland, part-owner of the mine. "All that is humanly possible is being done to gain access to these trapped miners."
Murray flew to the mine hours after the accident.
It could take several days to reach the men, who could have access to enough oxygen and water to survive, Murray said. Four other miners were able to escape.
The mining company recruited about 200 employees to join the rescue effort, with a command center set up in this rural town of 2,000 people about 15 miles from the mine entrance. The rescuers broke up into four teams, each taking a different route to where the trapped workers are believed to be.
Murray, showing a map to reporters, said some rescuers were drilling horizontally from the top of the mountain while others moved horizontally using heavy machines to break through solid rock. Murray said he was hoping rescuers would locate an old mining shaft that would allow them to get within 100 feet of the trapped miners.
"The idea is to get a hole into where they are," Murray said. "They could be in a chamber 1,000 feet long or they could be dead."
The Crandall Canyon mine, in Emery County, burrows deep into a mountain in the Manti-La Sal National Forest, a remote and sparsely populated area. The mine's entrance is large enough to accommodate trucks that transport workers into the tunnels.
Federal safety inspectors have issued more than 320 citations against the mine since January 2004, including more than two dozen this year. The citations included inadequate ventilation and too few "mine-rescue teams." The mine owners have paid more than $150,000 in penalties, including more than $130,000 since January.
But Bruce Dial, a North Carolina-based consultant and former mining inspector for 24 years, said most of the citations were for minor infractions. The mine, Dial said "had a better safety record than many others."
Murray said the mine had not had a serious accident in more than two decades. But the county is still haunted by a 1984 mine fire that killed 27 people in the nearby Wilburg mine.
Mining has always been a dangerous occupation. Just this year, 30 miners - 10 of them coal miners - have been killed in the United States, according to the federal Mining Safety and Health Administration.
Ashley Powers and Janet Wilson write for the Los Angeles Times.