HUNTINGTON, Utah – As teams of rescuers struggled to reach six coal miners trapped by a cave-in more than 1,500 feet below the surface, one of the Utah mine's owners came out on the offensive, insisting an earthquake caused the collapse that trapped the men and saying it would take at least three days to reach them.
"I don’t know whether these miners are alive or dead," Robert E. Murray of the Murray Energy Corp. of Cleveland, which owns a 50 percent stake of the mine, said Tuesday. "Only the Lord knows that."
Murray said that 134 rescue workers were about 2,000 feet from the trapped miners, having only dug 310 feet in the Crandall Canyon mine during the last 30 hours. He hoped they'd reach the workers in several days.
• PHOTO ESSAY: Utah Mine Collapse
"Progress has been too slow, too slow," he said. "It will take, ladies and gentlemen, three days, if everything goes right, to get to these miners."
Even then, rescuers will have only a 2-inch hole into the chamber through which to communicate with the miners and provide them food or air, he said.
Some of the crews had worked through the night using only their hands to dig toward the men.
They're "actually in there digging with their hands — with their hands — trying to do whatever they could to get these guys out," Julie Jones, a city councilwoman whose son, Elam, works at the mine, told FOX News.
With no word on whether the six were still alive, crews worked through the night in shifts, but attempts were halted around 4 a.m. after a "bump," in which coal was dislodged from the mine's ribs, said Allyn Davis, a district manager with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
The trapped miners were believed to have been in a chamber 3.4 miles inside the Crandall Canyon mine. Rescuers were able to reach a point about 1,700 feet from that point before being blocked by debris during the bump.
Federal mine-safety inspectors, who have issued more than 300 citations against the mine since January 2004, were helping oversee the search.
"There is no blame," Murray said. "This was a natural disaster."
If they are alive, the miners would have plenty of air because oxygen naturally leaks into the mine, Murray said. The mine also is stocked with drinking water.
Murray lashed out at reporters who had said the mine utilized a method called "retreat mining," in which miners initially leave pillars of coal to hold up an area of the mine's roof. When an area is mined out, the company pulls the pillar and recovers that coal, allowing the roof to collapse. Experts say the technique is one of the most dangerous in mining.
"There are eight solid pillars around where the men are right now and I'm really not going to respond to this retreat mining anymore because it is invented by people who have motives that want to damage Murray Energy, Utah American and the United States coal industry for their own motives," Murray said.
Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon told FOX News that now is not the time to level blame at anyone.
"It's always great in retrospect to blame somebody or point a finger, but that's not what this is about," she said. "We want to be very, very positive and hoping that the very, very best comes out of this."
Little was known about the six miners, who range in ages from the 20s to the 40s. Only one has been identified, but Mexico's consul in Salt Lake City, Salvador Jimenez, said three of the men are Mexican citizens.
Jimenez said he did not know any details about the men, including whether they are U.S. residents, their ages or hometowns.
"They're all experienced, professional miners," Murray said.
Many of the family members don't speak English, so Gordon said she hugged them, put her hands over her heart and then clasped them together to let them know she was praying for them, she said.
"Past experience tells us these things don't go very well," said Gordon, whose husband is a former miner.
The families were moved from a senior center to a local high school Tuesday to protect them from the media.
"At this time when people are anxious and emotions are high, it wasn't a good time to have a lot of pressure put on them," Gordon told FOX News.
Outside the senior center, Ariana Sanchez, 16, said her father, Manuel Sanchez, 42, was among the trapped miners. She said she cried when her mother told her the news, and declined to say more.
Emery County Sheriff Lamar Guymon said he expected the mine company to begin bulldozing a road needed to bring in a drilling rig.
The rig could punch holes in the mine to improve ventilation and determine if the miners survived, Murray said Monday.
The sheriff said 90 percent of the community is tied to coal mining or energy production. "This affects everybody, not just six families," he said.
The mine is built into a mountain in the rugged Manti-La Sal National Forest, 140 miles south of Salt Lake City, in a sparsely populated area.
University of Utah seismograph stations recorded seismic waves of 3.9 magnitude early Monday in the area of the mine, causing speculation that a minor earthquake had caused the cave-in. Scientists later said the collapse at the mine had caused the vibrations. But later, they said a natural earthquake could not be ruled out and more information was needed to conclusively determine what happened.
Government mine inspectors have issued 325 citations against the mine since January 2004, according to an analysis of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration online records. Of those, 116 were what the government considered "significant and substantial," meaning they are likely to cause injury.
Having 325 safety violations is not unusual, said J. Davitt McAteer, former head of the MSHA and now vice president of Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia. "It's not perfect but it's certainly not bad."
This year, inspectors have issued 32 citations against the mine, 14 of them considered significant. Last month, inspectors cited the mine for violating a rule requiring that at least two separate passageways be designated for escape in an emergency.
It was the third time in less than two years that the mine had been cited for the same problem, according to MSHA records. In 2005, MSHA ordered the mine owners to pay $963 for not having such escape routes. The 2006 fine for the same problem was just $60.
Overall, the federal government has ordered the mine owner to pay nearly $152,000 in penalties for its 325 violations, with many citations having no fines calculated yet. Since January, the mine owner has paid $130,678 in fines, according to MSHA records.
Asked about safety, Murray told reporters: "I believe we run a very safe coal mine. We've had an excellent record."
Utah ranked 12th in coal production in 2006. It had 13 underground coal mines in 2005, the most recent statistics available, according to the Utah Geological Survey.
Last summer, Congress tried to make coal mining safer, assessing hefty fines for rule violations and requiring more oxygen to be stored underground. The changes were in response to the Sago mine disaster that killed 12 miners in West Virginia.
Murray's company bought half the mine on Aug. 9, 2006. Utah's Intermountain Power Agency owns the other 50 percent, he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.