Dark Journey to Utah Mine Collapse

I stepped into the mine at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday night. It was nearly two full days after tons of coal crashed down in a deep tunnel of the Crandall Canyon mine near Huntington, Utah, trapping six miners and sparking a frantic, round-the-clock effort to reach the men. Now I was the only print reporter among a group of five journalists rescuers led on an exclusive journey into the mine. It was unprecedented access in the history of modern coal-mining accidents.

Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Inc., and part owner of the mine, agreed to the trip so that a small group of reporters could watch as rescuers resumed drilling, suspended Tuesday night as too dangerous, after a second cave-in wiped out nearly 300 feet of progress and almost killed rescuers.

(Update: On Saturday, officials reported that efforts to gain contact with the miners had failed to locate signs of the six trapped men. Richard Stickler, assistant secretary of the Department of Labor for Mine Safety and Health announced that a camera lowered through a 8 5/8 inch hole bored into the collapsed tunnel overnight produced cloudy images that didn't show the trapped men. Efforts to signal them by tapping on the metal drill shaft that would reverberate deep underground produced no return signal, Stickler said.

Even so, rescuers continue to hope that the men may have survived. The camera revealed that the cave-in didn't fill the entire tunnel. "The good news is that we have a five and a half foot opening in the tunnel," Stickler told reporters. "We have survivable space." But a smaller probe lowered Friday using a 2.5 inch drill discovered that the oxygen level in an adjacent area of the tunnel 130 feet away was only 7 percent--too low to maintain human life. Rescuers began blowing 69,000 cubic feet of surface air into the hole, but they haven't taken new readings from the larger hole and don't know whether sufficient oxygen existed the area where the men are. Officials promised to clean and re-insert the camera as soon as possible. Meanwhile, rescuers digging through the debris within the tunnel were at least several days away from reaching the area where the men were believed to be.)

On Wednesday night, over the next 3.5 hours, we traveled to the edge of Monday's cave-in, 1,500 feet below the surface, where workers continued to fight terrifying seismic tremors called "mountain bumps" and the nearly half mile of coal between the rescue efforts and the trapped victims. We watched as these men resume their struggle to move the mounds of black rock in front of them, and to reach the people they call "their brothers." Here's what happened:

7:22 P.M.
Arriving on the mining site, with the sun setting behind the Utah hills, we are "right in the heart" of the operation, a manager tells us. It's the second floor of a two-story metal building, called the Conspec operation, with a computer-control center wired to the sensors throughout the mine designed to detect worrisome tremors and the build-up of methane gas. It was here that mine authorities first learned there was a problem early Sunday morning, 17,000 feet from the mine's entrance.

We're each given a small one-by-three-inch nameplate and are told we'll need it later. And then we get our gear: hard hat, light, rubber boots, protective eyewear and overalls. Most importantly, the CSE 100, a device that can give a trapped miner (or visitor) one hour of fresh air.

8:00 P.M.
Fully geared, we walk up a hill about 500 feet just to the side of the Conspec operation to the entrance of the Crandall Mine. The opening is 14 feet wide, 8 feet high, with a door just next to it. But we're not ready to go in just yet.

We're taken to a back room just off the entrance for a quick training on how to survive—if you survive—a mine collapse. Crews coming out of the mine walk through the small room. "Good shift," one manager says to a young coal miner, his face dusted in black. A big board, with orange, blue and white columns, tracks every miner at the facility. Our namesplates are added under the orange column CRANDALL MINE, along with the names of the missing miners.

8:06 P.M.
Boddee Allred has slept only four hours in the past three days. A 34-year-old father of five, he's the Crandall Mine safety director. "This is my mine," he says more than once.

Allred looks exhausted, his lips firm and serious. He explains the mine has three tunnels we need to know about, and each has a designated color. The intake, or blue tunnel, is the one we will be traveling down. The red escape tunnel runs parallel to the blue. And the green tunnel, between the blue and red tunnels, is where the conveyor belt pulls out the coal. Three-by-eight-inch reflective cards line each mine tunnel in their designated color. If there's a problem, Allred says, follow the color out. Can't see because of smoke? Every tunnel is lined with a rope, and on each rope is a cone-shaped plastic device. If your hand runs smoothly over the cone, you're going the right way. If it's blocked, you're going the wrong way, Allred says.

Next we practice putting on our CSE. Used right, you can get an hour of air. Panic and breath heavily and it's half that.

As Allred wraps ups the lesson, he walks by the tracking board, which still holds the trapped miners' names. He pauses for a moment, and I ask how important the board is in the operation. "Very," he says, his eyes tearing up. "And when they are out of the mine, we will pull the names."


8:30 P.M.
Western coal mines are generally bigger and deeper than those in the East. With higher ceilings, a small low-profiled pickup truck can be used to move miners down more than three and a half miles to the digging. And that's what Allred calls me into. I'm in the front seat of a rusted-out Isuzu pickup just outside the mountain entrance. Allred jumps into the driver seat, turns the key and the truck putters into a low rumble. He pauses for a moment, turns to me and says unsolicited, "This was my old crew." Before becoming safety director? "Yeah," as he throws it in gear. "My cousin is one of the guys trapped. And my brother [Benny], he is on this crew. But he was called home on Sunday. Didn't come to work that day."

8:35 P.M.
The long ride down into Crandall Mine is a bumpy dirt road, up and down small hills, through puddles of water, like an old backcountry road on the darkest night. The mine looks clean, solid, the black coal sidewalls actually coated white with rock dust. Allred tells me this is a safety measure; with the walls coated in dust, they are less likely to catch on fire.

8:42 P.M.
Allred pulls the Isuzu up to a telephone hanging precariously on the side of the mine wall. It's a checkpoint. They're called section-zone phones. Using a hardline that runs all the way back to the Conspec center on the surface, mine officials track everyone leaving each section of the mine. "This is Boddee with Jim Moscou," he tells the operator. She makes a note and we move.

For the trapped miners, their last check in, several checkpoints still ahead, came around 7 p.m., Allred says. The mine collapsed around 3 a.m. They had been working in that section for nearly eight hours, half the life of a typically battery pack that operates the headlamp.

Allred rolls on. "See that?" he passes a cache of CSEs, the oxygen-providing device that so many hope helped save the trapped miners. "We store those throughout the mine" in case they need more. But the trapped miners, he says, probably did not have access to extra CSEs.

8:48 P.M.
"Hey, Lori, this is Boddee and the entourage." We're now at the second checkpoint, and the smell is a mix of rock and fumes from the truck. The air is moist and the temperature cool, but not so cold that it could kill.

Allred's Ped Light goes off—a small, wireless box he and other managers wear on the hip capable of sending a one-way message coming from the Conspec operation. A light blinks and the box buzzes, telling the miner he essentially has a page, a message he doesn't share. Allred explains the device, looks up and says, "We've been sending them a message every half hour."

What do you say?

"We're on our way. Hang in there. Stuff like that."

After 20 minutes of driving, we're more than two miles underground.

9:10 P.M.
Allred makes a sharp right, parks and we get out to walk the rest of the way, to where the mine collapsed. "We're about 500 feet away," he says.

It's darker, with few lights in the mine, the floor is scattered with coal debris. There's a steady and constant breeze. Along the sides are stacks of supplies, including huge eight-by-eight timber beams and metal poles, called Roc Props, both used to shore up the ceiling and sides of the mine. Two miners come running by, looking for a part on a machine just 100 feet ahead. There is an urgency, but a focus and little need for words.

We're 2,000 feet underground, deeper than the trapped miners, but that's how this mine road goes. Up and down. Robert Murray, the company CEO, joined us on the trip down. He walks with a stick, trying to keep his footing on a mine floor covered with bits of coal.

Nearly blocking the mine, just in front of us, is one of the many machines brought in to help this rescue effort, Murray says. It's a bolt machine, a huge device that drives rebar into the ceiling to shore up the roof. As we skirt around the side of the machine, to reach the other side, 14 miners are working at a clipped pace.

9:19 P.M.
When the incident occurred, it trapped the miners more than 2,000 feet down this passageway. But the 4.0 seismic event didn't crumble the roofs, which appear intact. Instead, it created a blowout from the sidewalls—the ribs, as the miners call it. The coal literally shot into the middle of the mine road, creating piles of coal that reach the ceiling. Like trying to fill a room with dirt, the very top is not packed in, with a few feet of open space that can be seen down the mine. "We crawled about 130 feet down then had to turn back," Allred said. The breeze is stiff. This is why Murray and others hope—and believe—air may be reaching the miners.

We're told that the rescue miners do not know we are coming, and they frankly don't even take notice to the glaring lights of the camera. There's a buzz in the air, a focused intensity. We're standing just 30 feet away from the mine collapse, and the men are getting ready to dig. Behind us are recently installed wood beams and chain-link fence, to shore up the side wall. In front of us are no supports at all.

The miners are about to start the continuous mining machine, a device that will literally scoop up the piled-up coal, pushing it back behind the machine to be dumped into a second machine called a shuttle car, which takes just 30 seconds to fill. That car, a low-profile mine dump truck, can haul away up to 12 tons of coal at time.

The work and this very location is extraordinarily dangerous. It's been more than 24 hours since any digging has taken place at this spot, according to Murray, and it seems for good reason. After the collapse, the miners returned to this very spot to start digging. Then a powerful "mountain bump," a massive seismic shifting of the rock, created a blow-in. In just a half-second, the 310 feet that had been dug out, just in front of us, was full of coal. The fact that additional miners were not trapped or killed was, by all accounts, a miracle.

9:36 P.M.
BANG!

It is a sound that rattles the bones with force and fear. For miners accustomed to the creaks and pops, a mine often yawns, even this sound sends workers looking up for a second. "These are totally different mining conditions," Allred says to me. The miners put their head back down. The continuous mining machine won't start. Murray is openly frustrated. A few minutes later, the machine's operator, who is wearing motocross gear on his chest to protect from flying bits of coal, flips the switch. Coal pours into the shuttle car. The noise is deafening. At this point, the operation is being run by just two machines and just two men. There's simply no room for more. This is how it will have to go.

Laine Adair, the mine general manager, leans over to me over the noise of the machine. "If you hear the bump, you know you're alive."

10:18 P.M.
Murray lets us know it's time for the media to leave. I look back to see the progress of the mining machine during our nearly one-hour stay. It progressed about 50 feet. The miners are 2,000 feet away. Back in the truck with Allred.

A man shouts to Allred for a ride further up the mine. It's his brother Benny, who jumps in the back. "He hasn't said much since the incident," Boddee notes, alluding to the fact that Benny could have been one of the trapped miners.

I mention the loud bump to Allred, asking if he gets used to that. "Hey, it can make you jump," he says. "But it's when the mountain isn't making any noise. That's when I get nervous."

Why?

"Too much pressure. It's too quiet. It's all building up, and it's just not good."

10:22 P.M.
We reach the second checkpoint telephone, and move on, up and down the same bumpy path we took in. Allred is still confident the miners are alive. He runs through the scenario. The seismic event collapsed the tunnel, sending wind toward the miners and throwing their bodies around. They put on their CSEs. They checked the three color-coded tunnels and found all blocked. The dust starts to settle. They realize they are trapped. They are reading the Ped messages. They are scared but alive. "I really believe this," Allred says. "I really do."

10:45 P.M.
Allred tells me just a few days before the accident he met with the very same crew now caught to refresh them on safety and escape measures. The CSE oxygen device. The procedures to follow if there's a collapse. "I don't know if it made a difference," Allred says. "I think it did. God, I hope it did."

Light at the end of the tunnel. We pop out of the mine, and it's night. The sun is down. Allred says goodbye and heads back in, as the group of journalists head back to the Conspec center to change out of the gear. Meantime, our names are taken off the board. Thankfully, we're out of the mine.