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Tuesday, October 15, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Idaho

Rescuers continue to probe mine

Lucky Friday mine. (Staff graphic)
Lucky Friday mine. (Staff graphic)
By Nichola K. Geranios The Associated Press

Hecla Mining Co. said rescue crews have started drilling a third bore hole into an open area behind tons of collapsed rock and debris in the Lucky Friday Mine. They hope to gather more information about the size of the open space, but rescuers still haven’t found any sign of a missing miner.

A tiny camera inserted into the first of the three bore holes, which was completed Tuesday, provides images from such a small area at a time that rescuers are not sure how large the open space is, said Melanie Hennessey of Hecla Mining Co.

Rescuers have had no contact with Larry “Pete” Marek, 53, since Friday’s cave-in more than a mile below the surface of the Lucky Friday Mine near Mullan, Idaho.

Workers have been digging more than 6,000 feet underground through the boulders, twisted wires and broken concrete that collapsed while Marek and his brother were working. The brother escaped.

A second bore hole also was completed Tuesday, allowing fresh air to be pumped into the open space, Hecla said.

No sounds from underground have been detected through the 180-foot long drill hole. The drill is still in place in the 46-foot long hole. That opening was drilled through debris from the rockfall and rescue workers don’t want to remove the drill because the debris might shift. However, air can still be pumped through the 46-foot long hole, Hecla officials said.

The company has had to begin digging a new tunnel in a safer effort to reach the area where officials believe Marek is trapped.

Rescue teams had been using a remote-controlled digging machine called a mucker to advance 39 feet into the collapsed area, leaving them perhaps just 35 feet from the open space. But unstable conditions prevented workers from safely shoring up that tunnel’s walls, so they had to stop.

Workers have 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. Crews had advanced about 54 feet toward the open space as of this afternoon.

“We’re going through hard rock,” Hennessey said, explaining the process involves drilling, blasting and removing rubble.

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

Rescuers worked more than a mile underground for 12 hours at a time.

It was 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 in existing mining areas when the collapse occurred about 75 feet from the end of the 6,150-foot deep tunnel, the company said.

They had been working at roughly opposite ends of the active mining area when the collapse occurred.

The Marek family has not commented. Federal officials said many family members work at the mine.

Officials said they will focus on how the collapse occurred once the rescue is complete.

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.

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

The mine tucked into the forested mountains of the Idaho Panhandle’s Silver Valley 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 past year specifically tied to the kind of accident that occurred Friday.

Reports on file with MSHA show the company has reported a dozen roof falls of various sizes since 2008, with a total of three workers injured.

Associated Press writer Joseph Altman in Phoenix contributed to this report.

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