SALT LAKE CITY – The search for six men trapped in a coal mine during a cave-in nearly four weeks ago is effectively over, after a robotic camera failed to provide any useful information, a federal mine official said Friday.
“We talked with the families and we basically told them we’re pretty much out of options,” said Rich Kulczewski, spokesman for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Officials told the families that the robotic camera was successfully dropped down the fourth of seven holes bored into the mountain, but that it became stuck in the mud as it moved over piles of debris, Kulczewski said.
Officials also could not retrieve the camera and had to leave it stuck about 50 feet from the surface, he said.
The steadfast families had a difficult time with the news, said Colin King, an attorney serving as a spokesman for all six families. “There were tears,” he said.
Miners Kerry Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Hernandez, Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips and Manuel Sanchez have not been seen since Aug. 6, when a thunderous mountain shudder caused ribs in the Crandall Canyon Mine to break, trapping them.
It isn’t known whether they survived. Three rescuers working underground were killed in a second collapse Aug. 16, another disaster that has foreclosed a separate way to reach the miners.
The possibility of an eighth hole isn’t being ruled out, but there are no immediate plans to drill one, Kulczewski said. The rescue efforts are over, he said.
“We don’t really know where we could drill again at this time,” he said. “That’s not to say there might be another hole in the future – you never know. But at this time we’re basically suspending the rescue operation.”
Federal safety officials have drilled a series of vertical bore holes into the mine in hopes of locating the six, but at each spot have found no signs of life and oxygen levels too low to sustain life.
Hole No. 7, drilled more than 1,800 feet through the mountain and into the mine Thursday, found nearly seven feet of debris. The drill bit emerged in an area called the “kitchen,” where miners are trained to seek refuge during a collapse.
“It was very discouraging to them to hear about the kitchen area being filled with rubble,” King said earlier Friday. “I think they’re moving closer and closer to accepting the likelihood that they won’t find anyone alive.”
Families of the missing men and the lost rescue workers gathered on a mountaintop above Huntington on Friday afternoon to release a golden eagle into the wild.
The bird, which had been cared for by the Southwest Wildlife Foundation, was a symbol of healing and hope, Huntington City Councilwoman Julie Jones said.
Representatives from each family touched the bird, offering up prayers, some audible and some whispered, for their loved ones.
Wendy Black, the wife of killed rescuer Dale “Bird” Black, held the eagle at the end of the ceremony and released it, Jones said.
“It was awesome,” Jones said. “It was a very emotional thing.”
The co-owner of the mine, Cleveland-based Murray Energy Corp., laid off 170 workers at its central Utah mines Monday but said Friday that about 35 of them accepted transfers to the company’s mining operations in Illinois and Ohio.
Company chairman Bob Murray said he extended job transfers to all laid-off workers in Utah. It’s possible more could join the Illinois and Ohio operations, he said.
Murray Energy has 19 mines in five states.