After dangerous conditions forced rescuers to halt attempts to reach six coal miners trapped 1,500 feet below ground Tuesday, the owner of the Crandall Canyon mine said Wednesday that crews trying to get air, food and water to the six had drilled within 1,000 feet of the men.
"We have good news this morning," Bob Murray, chairman of Murray Energy Corp., said during a press conference Wednesday. Murray said that if the resumed drilling activity continued at the pace it was progressing, the miners could be reached within two days.
"We are now optimistic by the 450 feet advance that we'll be there in two days," Murray said.
• PHOTO ESSAY: Utah Mine Collapse
Crews were trying to drill two separate holes through the rubble. Murray said that once these holes reached the men, the miners could be provided with food, water and "everything they need, including a toothbrush and comb."
There still was no way of knowing if the miners were alive, and Murray warned that the six could have been killed instantly by the impact of the cave-in. He also warned that one of the two drilling rigs could miss the cavity. But the second drill "will reach these men in two days," he said.
Murray said he invited the son of one trapped miner and the brother of another with him on a trip inside the mine to show them the progress of the rescue efforts.
Wednesday's news was a sharp reversal from Tuesday, when rescue efforts had to be stopped in the face of seismic activity in the area that Murray said "wiped out" all progress rescuers had made in clearing rubble that had trapped the miners since Monday. Mining executives said Tuesday that it would take a week to reach the miners.
The debate over whether the collapse was caused by an earthquake continued Wednesday. Murray renewed his attacks on media coverage of the disaster and insisted the collapse was caused by an earthquake, contradicting seismologists who said the cave-in itself was what registered 3.9 on the Richter scale.
"From our mining experience, we know this was an earthquake," Murray said.
"It seems to me the media's more concerned about trying to place blame than they are about the families and the actual rescue effort underground," he added.
A spokesman for University of Utah seismologists said Wednesday that all evidence indicates it was the mine collapse, not an earthquake, that registered on a seismograph early Monday, and that scientists suspect further shaking at the site is caused by settling.
University of Utah science news specialist Lee Siegel said seismologists don't know what is actually being felt on the ground at the mine during the rescue attempts but "are presuming it's from settling." Eleven aftershocks were recorded in 1 1/2 days after the collapse, Siegel said. The largest was magnitude 2.2.
The holes being drilled to reach the miners are small — one is 2 1/2 inches in diameter and the other less than 9 inches — and will need to reach about 1,500 feet below the surface. The smaller hole was 450 feet deep by early Wednesday, but there were problems aligning the drill for the other hole, Stickler said.
"If you don't have it aligned properly, you're going to miss your target," Stickler said.
If the miners are alive, Murray said, they could survive on available air "for perhaps weeks."
The government's chief mine inspector in the West was more cautious.
"We're hoping there's air down there. We have no way of knowing that," said the Mine Safety and Health Administration's Al Davis.
Four miners escaped, but they were not in the same area as their trapped brethren, according to Murray.
The U.S. Geological Survey said it appeared the initial tremor was the mine collapse rather than a quake. Mine collapses have a seismic signature distinct from earthquakes because they tend to occur at shallower depths and at different frequencies.
Murray also lashed out at news media for suggesting his men were conducting "retreat mining," a method in which miners pull down the last standing pillars of coal after mining out an area and let the roof fall in.
But Amy Louviere, an MSHA spokeswoman, said retreat mining was going on at the mine in a remote canyon 140 miles south of Salt Lake City. She said that exactly what the miners were doing, and whether that led to the collapse, could only be answered by a full investigation.
Retreat mining has been blamed for 13 deaths since 2000.
The government requires mining companies to submit a detailed plan before beginning the process. Murray Energy submitted such a plan and received approval in 2006, Louviere said.