MAC: Mines and Communities


Published by MAC on 2007-08-17


Cave-in kills three Utah mine rescue workers

James Sturcke and agencies, Guardian Unlimited

17th August 2007

Three rescue workers were killed and at least another six were injured today when they attempted to reach a group of miners trapped underground for more than a week in the US state of Utah.

Officials were poised to suspend rescue efforts at the mine after the searchers were caught in a cave-in as they were tunnelling through rubble.

The deaths occurred on the 11th day of a rescue operation to find six miners who are trapped 1,500 feet (450 metres) underground at the Crandall Canyon mine, situated about 100 miles south-east of Salt Lake City. It is not known if the miners are alive or dead.

Six of the rescue workers were taken to Castleview hospital in Price, about 30 miles south of the mine, where one died. A second worker died at Utah Valley regional medical centre in Provo, while another worker there was in a critical condition with head injuries. The third death was confirmed by the US Department of Labour.

Authorities said the cave-in was caused by a mountain bump - a build-up of pressure inside the mine that shoots coal from the walls with great force. Seismologists say such an event caused the August 6 cave-in.

Underground, rescuers have advanced to only 826 feet in nine days. Officials said conditions in the mine were treacherous and they were frequently forced to halt digging because of seismic activity.

The digging had been set back on Wednesday night when a coal excavating machine was half buried by rubble.

"The seismic activity underground has just been relentless. The mountain is still alive, the mountain is still moving and we cannot endanger the rescue workers as we drive toward these trapped miners," the mine owner, Bob Murray of Murray Energy, said yesterday.

Rescuers have drilled a series of holes to provide air to where the miners are believed to be located. Video images attained by dropping a camera down a hole appear to reveal an undamaged chamber, but signs of life have not been detected, officials said.

The disaster has focussed attention on Mr Murray, who owns a number of private coal mining companies and is a Republican party donor. Murray Energy Political Action Committee has given more than $155,000 (£75,000) to Republican candidates, including $30,000 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee, since 2005, according to Federal Election Commission records. Mr Murray has also made personal contributions to the senatorial committee.

Government mine inspectors have issued 325 citations against the Utah mine since January 2004, according to federal Mine Safety and Health Administration records. Of those, 116 were what the government considered "significant and substantial," meaning they were likely to cause injury.

Davitt McAteer, the former head of the MSHA and now vice-president of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia, said the number of safety violations was not unusual.

Earlier in the rescue effort, Mr Murray said that "only God" knew whether the trapped miners were alive and blamed the mine collapse on an earthquake.

But seismologists said the collapse was the likely source of the seismic movement they recorded. Lee Siegel, a University of Utah spokesman, said: "Our seismologists at the University of Utah are careful not to rule out any possibility, but they tell me all of the available evidence indicates that the mine collapse itself was the earthquake."

Around 30 miners are killed in the US every year. In January 2006, 12 miners died when a shaft in West Virginia collapsed. The incident sparked fury after officials declared most of the miners were alive, triggering newspaper headlines of a miraculous escape, only for authorities to admit hours later that just one man had survived.

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