Utah mine boss defends handling of search efforts

Thursday, August 23, 2007

HUNTINGTON, Utah -- Lashing out at criticism he was abandoning six trapped coal miners, the mine chief promised Wednesday to keep searching through the weekend and punch yet another hole into "this evil mountain."

Bob Murray, the face of the rescue effort since the Aug. 6 cave-in, dropped from public view for a time after three men died trying to tunnel toward the miners, but he said he's always been focused on finding the six -- dead or alive.

"I didn't desert anybody," said Murray, the mine's co-owner. "I've been living on this mountain every day, living in a little trailer."

Later Wednesday, crews searching for the miners finished drilling a fifth hole into the Crandall Canyon Mine. Officials planned to bang on a drill bit and wait for a response, take air readings, and lower a microphone and camera, but said they expect the results to be the same as from the four previous tries: no sign of life.

Murray said a sixth exploratory hole would be drilled beginning today if the latest attempt is unsuccessful. He said he might resume mining in other parts of the mine, but not in the area where the miners are trapped.

"Had I known that this evil mountain, this alive mountain, would do what it did, I would never have sent the miners in here," he said. "I'll never go near that mountain again."

The collapse that trapped the miners is believed to have been caused by settling layers of earth bearing down on the walls of a coal mine, an unpredictable force known by miners as a "bump."

Murray has insisted the collapse was caused by an earthquake, but government seismologists say the collapse itself is what caused the ground to shake, registering a 3.9 magnitude.

Since then there have been several other bumps, including one last week that killed the three rescue workers, injured six others and led the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration to call off rescuers' efforts to dig underground. The test holes have revealed there is little breathable air 1,500 feet underground, where the miners are thought to be trapped.

During his middle-of-the-night AP interview, Murray described the scene of the second collapse.

He said he rushed into the mine in his street clothes and began digging out the men, buried under five feet of coal, with his bare hands. "I never hesitated to go in there. I was the first man in and the last man out," he said.

He said he later dropped out of a debriefing with federal officials and began wandering around the mine yard in the moonlight, reliving the collapse. He said he broke down.

"I came apart," he said. "I was under a doctor's care for a couple days."

A funeral for rescuer Gary Jensen, a mine safety inspector, was held Wednesday.

Murray, 67, has been a target of families' anger over the suspended tunneling efforts and the decision to not dig a hole big enough for a rescue capsule to be lowered into the mine. Other critics and mine experts have questioned whether mining should have been conducted at Crandall Canyon at all because of the potential for collapses.

Murray spoke bitterly of the United Mine Workers of America, which has called his company callous for planning to resume mining at other parts of 5,000-acre mine.

"They're twisting it all around to discredit me and my company," he said. He accused the union of using the disaster at the nonunion mine as a recruiting opportunity.

After the first collapse, Murray said repeatedly that the men could have survived and he would bring them home, alive or dead. But he retreated from that view after the deaths of the rescue workers.

He re-emerged Monday to announce that the trapped miners would likely remain entombed in the Crandall Canyon mine.

Murray said there was no indication before the initial collapse that the mine was anything but stable.

"I have weekly reports from the mine, and they were telling me that the mining in this mine was going better in the last couple months than it ever had," he said. "Safety first, then production. That's all we focus on, safety."

Most workers at Crandall Canyon have been given jobs at two other mines in central Utah's coal belt, although a small crew remains at Crandall Canyon, he said.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: