HUNTINGTON, Utah – After 10 days of setbacks, nerve-jangling "bumps" and a second mine collapse that killed three workers trying to rescue their comrades, authorities Friday conceded defeat to a mountain that appeared to be slowly crumbling.
"Is there any possible way we can continue this underground operation and provide safety for the rescue workers? At this point we don't have an answer," federal Mine Safety and Health Administration chief Richard Stickler said as he announced that officials had suspended the rescue operation indefinitely.
The collapse Thursday night killed three rescue workers and injured six others who were trying to tunnel through rubble to reach six men trapped since Aug. 6 after a massive cave-in. Crews on Friday were still drilling a fourth hole into the mountain to look for any sign of the missing men.
"Without question, we have suffered a setback, and we have incurred an incredible loss. But this team remains focused on the task at hand" — the rescue of the miners, said Rob Moore, vice president of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner of the Crandall Canyon Mine.
Said Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who ordered flags lowered to half staff: "We went from a tragedy to a catastrophe."
Huntsman continued to call the effort a "rescue operation," but he said the digging would not resume until workers' safety could be guaranteed.
"Let us ensure that we have no more injuries. We have suffered enough as a state," he said.
President Bush called Huntsman Friday afternoon to express his condolences for those who died or were injured in the mine rescue. "He wanted the governor and the people of Utah to know that they are in his thoughts and prayers," White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said.
Mexico's consul in Salt Lake City, Salvador Jimenez, said he spoke with Huntsman and urged him to continue the rescue effort. While experts need to study the best way to do it safely, "this effort should not be interrupted," Jimenez said. Three of the six men still trapped are Mexican nationals.
The cave-in at 6:39 p.m. was believed to be caused by a "mountain bump," in which shifting layers of earth forced chunks of rock from the walls. The force from the bump registered a magnitude 1.6 at the University of Utah seismograph stations in Salt Lake City.
"These events seem to be related to ongoing settling of the rock mass following the main event," university spokesman Lee Siegel said. "I don't think I'm going too far to say that this mountain is collapsing in slow motion."
Stickler said the bump unleashed a massive blast of coal and support material that buried the miners working to clear rubble from the underground tunnel. The blast created a destruction zone about 30 feet long along a wall of the chamber and knocked out steel posts, chain link fencing and the cables that tied everything together.
The rescuers had been working beneath 2,000 feet of sandstone. Stickler said the weight of the mountain created tremendous pressure on the cavern, blowing out reinforced walls with a force that could break a 40-ton mining machine in half.
"When that energy gets released, it's like an explosion," he said.
Rescuers frantically dug out the injured men, buried under 5 feet of coal, by hand and rushed them from the mine on the beds of pickup trucks. One died at the scene, said Kevin Stricklin, MSHA's administrator for coal mine safety.
Two of the dead were identified as MSHA inspector Gary Jensen, 53, of Redmond, and miner Dale Black of Monticello, who was in his 40s.
Jensen had worked at MSHA since 2001 and was recently assigned to special investigations, agency spokeswoman Amy Louviere said.
Black grew up two doors from Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon, who visited his mother Friday and recalled that he was "just full of life."
The president of the United Mine Workers of America, Cecil E. Roberts, blamed the mine's owners and federal officials for the latest tragedy. Owners of the nonunion mine had rejected UMW offers to help in the rescue effort, saying they had all the help they needed.
"This disaster has only compounded what was already an immense tragedy. Making the situation much worse is the fact that all of these deaths were needless and preventable," Roberts said in a statement from union headquarters in Fairfax, Va.
But Stickler said outside experts had signed off on MSHA's plan to ensure the rescuers' safety underground.
"There was consensus that the plan that we had developed and implemented provided the maximum safety of workers that we knew to be available," he said. "Obviously, it was not adequate."
Noticeably absent Friday from the news conference announcing the suspended rescue effort was Bob Murray, co-owner of the mine, who had been a dominant presence at previous briefings.
"He wanted to be here. I'm certain you understand the reasons he could not be here this morning," Moore said. He provided no details on where Murray was.
MSHA is summoning the experts to the mine to see if they can develop a safer way of tunneling toward the trapped miners, Stickler said. But he said any further rescue efforts would have to involve drilling a bore hole large enough to fit a rescue capsule — a task that would take more than two weeks, according to Stricklin.
Sue Ann Martell, director of the mining history museum in nearby Helper, Utah, said the rescue workers won't give up easily.
"Because if they were in there and they were the original six, they'd want to know somebody was coming after them, and they wouldn't want them to give up," Martell said. "Yeah, three more have died, you've got six more injured. OK fine, let's stabilize the mine, but we're going back. They won't give up."
"Think about the code that's among firemen — you don't leave a man behind," she said.
Martell, who is a neighbor to one of the trapped miners, said she cried for the first time Friday.
"It's just mounting up and mounting up," she said. "It's horrible."
In Mexico, Susana Salcido sobbed when told that the search for her cousin Manuel Sanchez and the other miners had been suspended.
"Yesterday we were hopeful after learning that they had heard noises (inside the rubble)," said Salcido, who lives in Sanchez's home town of Nuevo Casas Grande.
"We never imagined that instead of good news we would hear about another tragedy," she added, referring to the killed rescuers.
Even so, she said she is not ready to lose hope. "All we can do now is pray for a miracle," Salcido said.
Bob Ferriter, a former MSHA engineer who teaches safety at the Colorado School of Mines, said it could take weeks before conditions are safe enough to attempt another underground rescue. But he predicted the mine would have no trouble getting workers to go back underground.
"It's a brotherhood. If they were in there, they would want somebody to come back and recover them," Ferriter said. Leaving the six men in the mine, he said, "would be the last option."
Yet miners have been left underground before. In 1968, a mine explosion in Farmington, W.Va., killed 78 miners. Nineteen remain entombed.
The Scotia Mine in Kentucky was sealed after a March 1976 accident that killed 26. Rescuers concluded the risk of additional explosions was too high. And 12 men killed in the 1959 Knox Mine disaster in Pennsylvania were never recovered.