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DISASTERS

Reporter's Notebook: Memories of the Utah mine disaster

Huntington, Utah is a two-and-a-half hour drive from Salt Lake City. The town, literally in the middle of nowhere, had a population of just over 2,000 people on Aug. 6, 2007  when it was rocked by by a mine collapse and explosion that actually registered as an earthquake in the 4.0 range.  

Unlike  some other towns in rural America, the people of Huntington and nearby Price welcomed the national media. They all had stories they wanted to tell -- stories about the mine, the owner and the president of the company, Bob Murray.

Out-of-towners are easy to recognize in a place like Huntington. We in the media tend to wear ID badges around our necks.  Supermarket check-out workers, the waitresses at the local diner, everyone asked us what was happening at the mine.

 Clearly there was a mistrust of the company and its owner. The best stories and tips came from the people of the town.

There were tips about repeated violations for the mine  --  they turned out to be true. But, the frustration for the people of Huntington and Price was that despite the repeated violations, in their opinion, nothing ever was done.  

The best tip came from the woman who ran the McDonald's in Price. She told us that Murray had closed another mine several years earlier, laying off 200 workers right before Christmas.

 Fox News confirmed that - and all the other tips we got - and reported on them extensively.

At the epicenter of the discontent about  the Crandall Canyon mine was Murray Energy Corporation’s CEO, Bob Murray.

At the beginning of the disaster, Murray took a page out of the media relations playbook and held regular briefings. Despite what the Mine Safety and Health Administration  investigators were telling us that -- there was indeed a collapse in the mine -- Murray insisted that the problem was caused by an earthquake.

 Murray continued to push his theory to anyone who would listen.  This angered the federal investigators, who were also forthcoming about the investigation.

 They felt that the infractions at the mine indicated criminal and civil negligence.   On background, they spoke to us about their frustrations with a lack of movement by the U.S. Justice Department to investigate and probe deeper into the problems at the mine.   

While Huntington is in the middle of rural Utah, the mine was far removed from the town. It was a 30-minute ride on a two-lane, winding road into the mountains to get to the mine. There was barely enough room there for the rescue crews and the media,.so the families of the men who were trapped inside the mine were forced to stay at a local school at the foot of the climb up the hill.

There, they got daily briefings from the feds and Bob Murray would drop by, as well.  As the stories about the violations started to come out,. Murray's visits with the families became less frequent.

John Huntsman Jr. was the governor of Utah at the time. Huntsman came into Huntington for the obligatory visit to the disaster scene. He visited with first responders, the families at the elementary school, and held a media briefing.  He was there for one afternoon and left.

My colleague Casey Stegall, who covered the collapse, says he remembers “the residents and families being so frustrated. They felt like the accident could have been avoided because of former complaints and infractions at the mine, yet people continued working there because they pay was good.

"I also remember the dreaded waiting game. They kept drilling down, deeper and deeper, day after day, with hopes of finding signs of life. When they hit nothing, they'd try a ‘new’ approach, go in at a different angle to try and reach the cavity where they believed the workers were trapped. We waited for days and days, the families grew impatient.”

Editor's note: Murray Energy Corporation responded to Don Fair's Reporter's Notebook. To read the company's response, click here.