7th borehole leads to rubble
By Stephen Speckman and Ben WinslowDeseret Morning News
August 31, 2007
A seventh borehole entered the Crandall Canyon Mine Thursday.
But that's where the good news ended for the families of six miners who have been trapped for more than three weeks.
By 5 p.m. Thursday, family members of missing miners Luis Hernandez, Manuel Sanchez, Don Erickson, Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips and Kerry Allred were given the "discouraging" news that the No. 7 hole into a supposed safe area called the "kitchen" did not reveal any signs of life.
Instead, workers discovered 7 feet of rubble from the floor up and only a 2 1/2-foot void, or space, between the top of the rubble pile and the ceiling. A camera lowered into the hole showed that it was filling up with mud and water.
"It's very discouraging to hear what happened in the kitchen," said Colin King, a Salt Lake attorney hired by the families of the trapped miners. He said family members appear to be ready to take the next step of "saying goodbye" to their loved ones.
"I think we're coming to the end of the line," King said.
Earlier Thursday, Mine Safety and Health Administration officials announced that the man who investigated West Virginia's Sago Mine disaster will lead the investigation into what caused the Aug. 6 collapse at Crandall Canyon.
Richard Gates is the regulatory agency's district manager in Birmingham, Ala., and will head the team that also includes MSHA officials with experience in retreat mining, roof control and other aspects of mining. The state of Utah also has been invited to participate.
Even as the investigation begins, Denver-based U.S. Department of Labor public affairs director Rich Kulczewski said the plan is to return to the fourth borehole to try to lower into the mine a $50,000 robot outfitted with a camera. There's about a 90 percent chance, he noted, that the robot won't make it all the way and that it could be lost in the effort, which was supposed to be under way Thursday night and into this morning.
That was the same news Kulczewski gave family members at a 5 p.m. briefing at the Desert Edge Christian Chapel.
"On the whole, they were pretty quiet," he said about the families' reaction. "They're strong people — they've been through so much."
At least one family member asked about going into the seventh borehole with a pump to draw out the water and mud. "We said we would look into that," Kulczewski said about his response.
"We haven't given up," he added, "but we're running out of possibilities. We wanted to get results. We might be disappointed, but we're not deterred."
No family members, however, are saying they want an eighth or ninth hole, Kulczewski said. Everyone is trying to be patient over the next 24 hours before making more requests, he said.
Sometime today it will be known whether anything was revealed through the fourth borehole.
A cousin of trapped miner Don Erickson volunteered to sign a waiver and be sent down into a hole to do his own search, but Kulczewski nixed that idea, saying it would take two weeks to drill a 30-inch hole and that it would be too risky. "That's something we can't allow to happen," he said.
Previously, the fourth borehole revealed a view of some large boulders and timbers, but it's not known yet if that hole still reaches into the mine.
U.S. Labor Secretary Richard Stickler said in a statement Thursday that MSHA's investigation will "fully examine all available evidence to find the cause of the ground failure at Crandall Canyon Mine and any violations of safety and health standards."
However, a labor union complains that it has been shut out of the investigation. The United Mine Workers of America said the families of the six trapped miners asked it to participate in the investigation — but MSHA denied its petition on behalf of the families.
"By denying the families any participation in this investigation, MSHA is ensuring that it will be investigating itself in this tragedy, and American coal miners deserve better than that," UMWA President Cecil Roberts said in a statement, calling on Congress to step in.
A series of congressional probes is set to begin next month.
MSHA said its report will seek to identify root causes of the accident and how the incident unfolded. Any violations of federal mine safety standards could result in citations against the mine's owners, MSHA said.
Investigators could begin looking into the cause as early as next week, federal officials said. Rescue efforts may still be ongoing at the time.
"Starting an investigation doesn't stop a rescue," said Al Davis, a district manager for MSHA.
Investigating will be a lengthy process, with severe limitations. Rescuers still can't get underground because of seismic activity. A 1.6 magnitude event on Aug. 16 killed three rescuers underground and injured six others. That will also be a part of the investigation, MSHA officials said.
The investigation will be different from most because it's "impossible" to get underground. However, MSHA has other means.
"They'll do it through analysis of the data you have at the time. What the readings might have been. They'll go into what the mountain might have been doing, past history of it, the plans that were in place before the mining operation," Kulczewski said. "Interviews are a big part of the investigation. Interviewing miners, the mine operator, MSHA itself."