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Fifth Hole Drilled at Utah Mine; Hope of Finding Trapped Miners Dwindles

August 21, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: Rescue crews at the Crandall Canyon Mine spent much of the day drilling a fifth hole to see if six trapped miners are still alive. But it’s been two weeks since the mine collapsed. Three people were killed during search efforts last week. And in the last 48 hours, government officials and the mine’s owner have said the men may never be found because of the dangers in the mountain.

Some family members of the missing miners aren’t ready to give up hope.

STEVE ALLRED, Brother of Trapped Miner: They’ve basically given up, and that’s unacceptable. Absolutely unacceptable. I can’t live with that, and his family can’t live with that. One way or another, we’ve got to have closure.

CESAR SANCHEZ, Brother of Trapped Miner: We were promised that they’d bring them out, and they need to stick up to that promise.

Tone of message changing

RAY SUAREZ: For the latest, we turn again to Brent Hunsaker of ABC's Salt Lake City affiliate KTVX-TV. He's been reporting on the accident since shortly after the initial collapse, and he joins us from the Crandall Canyon Mine.

And, Brent, in the last few days, as we mentioned, people have started to talk about never recovering the six from the mine. Does that represent a big departure from what they were saying earlier, both publicly and to the families?

BRENT HUNSAKER, Reporter, KTVX-TV: Yes, the event that seemed to change everything was last Thursday night's accident, where three rescuers died and six others were injured. At that point, we didn't see Bob Murray for nearly four days. The press conferences were few and far between, the word more guarded.

Prior to that, everything had been optimistic. They were always looking for the silver lining in everything that happened. Even when they bored down into a hole and found insufficient oxygen to sustain life, they said, "Well, but there is a cavity large enough to handle them, the roof is intact, and there are other areas in this cavity behind the debris where they could go and could find oxygen."

So they were always looking for that hopeful silver lining. But after Thursday, no, they didn't. And last night, Mr. Murray was very frank in his assessment that they will probably never be found, never be found alive, and that the mine may likely be their tomb.

RAY SUAREZ: So is the search for the men officially over?

BRENT HUNSAKER: The search is not officially over. The underground rescue effort, yes, has been terminated indefinitely. They will probably never send rescuers again into that mine to try to clear the debris.

But they continue to drill borehole number five. It is due to break through about 5:00, 6:00 our time this evening. We probably won't hear word of it, though, until late tonight, maybe early tomorrow. What they're going to do is they're going to send another microphone down, another camera down, and take a look around.

If they find no proof of life, then they say they will have to reassess the entire effort. But right now, that's the last, thin thread that the families are clinging to, the hope that borehole number five will bear some fruit, show some proof of life.

Doubts cast on rescue capsule

RAY SUAREZ: Well, earlier in this stretch of days, there had been talk of sending a rescue capsule down, drilling a much larger hole to do it. Is that no longer feasible?

BRENT HUNSAKER: At this point, they say, unless they find live miners trapped in that mine, they are not going to use that option. In fact, the drill is still in California. They have the capsules on site, but not the drill capable of drilling that about 30-inch hole, a hole big enough where they can send the rescue capsule down.

Also, they point out it's going through about 2,039 feet of rock. In order to send a man through that much rock in an unstable mountain down into an area where they don't know what he's going to encounter, certainly not sufficient oxygen to breathe, it's just too risky, unless they find proof of life.

RAY SUAREZ: When an underground search is suspended, whose decision is that? Is it the mine owner? Is it federal safety authorities, the state of Utah?

BRENT HUNSAKER: At this point, it's MSHA and the mine owner that are operating in concert, and it would be a joint decision by both the feds, as well as the mine owner.

RAY SUAREZ: Have there been cases in Utah where miners who died underground are simply left there and that becomes their final resting place?

BRENT HUNSAKER: This is almost unprecedented. The only other account of a mine being closed with miners apparently still inside came in 1900. It was a disaster at a mine called Winter Quarters. Two hundred men were recovered from that mine, bodies recovered from the mine. But according to family accounts, there were still about 50 unaccounted for.

The mine company claims it got everybody out. The family said, "Wait a minute, where is my father? Where is my husband?" And by those accounts, by the family's accounts, 50 were left behind, but that's the only other incident in the history of Utah where, apparently, miners were left behind in a mine and the mine became their final resting place.

Families' handling of news

RAY SUAREZ: Have you had a chance to talk to any of the families of the trapped men and gotten to talk to them about this change in heart, change in tone from the authorities?

BRENT HUNSAKER: I think last night's press conference, the first one that they had -- or last night's meeting, I should say, with Bob Murray, the first one they had since the Thursday night disaster with the rescuers, was equivalent to pulling the rug out from under them.

Again, they had been hearing hopeful, hopeful, hopeful for almost two weeks. And then, last night, they say Mr. Murray was very frank with them, very to the point, and it was like someone sucker-punching you. It just knocked the wind out of them. They were shocked by what they heard.

Some of them said they thought that his mannerisms were pretty gruff. At one point when they were trying to ask questions, it seemed like he was berating them for asking that question. Not a good experience. And after that, I think the families felt just unbelievable anguish at what's ahead.

RAY SUAREZ: Is there any kind of investigation currently ongoing as to what happened and how these men were trapped?

BRENT HUNSAKER: At this point, no. We've gotten no indication that inspectors or investigators are here on site doing that work. We've always been told that the rescue comes first and, once the rescue is concluded, then the investigation will begin. And at this point, the rescue has not been officially terminated.

RAY SUAREZ: And what about starting to mine there in Crandall Canyon again? Can they begin to pull coal out of the earth before such an investigation is completed?

BRENT HUNSAKER: I don't know about the timing. Mr. Murray has talked about continuing to mine in another area. Now, you've got to realize, in this canyon, there's a portal on one side of the canyon. It's the west side, and that's where the miners are trapped, through that portal, down to about three-and-a-half miles, down to the end of that mine.

But over on the other side of the canyon, on the east side, there's another portal. And I think there's been some confusion about, you know, Mr. Murray talking about resuming mining. I think -- and I haven't got this confirmed yet -- but I believe what he's talking about is reopening that eastern portal and operating in a completely different area. I don't know that he's got any plans at all to ever mine the coal out of that west portal again.

Future use of the mine

RAY SUAREZ: I'm asking, because I'm wondering whether a mine in this kind of condition has to get a clean bill of health before workers can go underground again. If it's seismically active, as Robert Murray suggests, if they're just collapsing ceilings, as some other safety experts have suggested, when will we know that it's OK to go work down there?

BRENT HUNSAKER: Well, again, that's the big question, you know, if would ever be possible to go into that west portal again and mine that coal. The experts up here have said already that it's unsafe, that they can't send rescuers back into work at the debris pile, so we know that's out.

There's also the issue of superstition to be considered. Remember, I talked about the Winter Quarters mine. There's another current mine operating in that same area, and the face of the coal where they're working right now is now within 500 feet of the old Winter Quarters mine. And there's already talk about some miners refusing to go to work on the face of the Skyline mine, because it is now coming so close to the old Winter Quarters mine, and they know that miners died there and they believe that at least 50 bodies are entombed there. And they just don't want to go there.

And if for some bizarre reason Mr. Murray were ever to want to go back into the west side, go back into that area, I don't know that he would get that many miners who would be willing to do it.

RAY SUAREZ: Brent Hunsaker, thanks for joining us.