Many Pressures Led to Cave-In

By Karl Vick and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, August 20, 2007

HUNTINGTON, Utah, Aug. 19 -- In the small hours of Aug. 6, before the mountain came down around six men working to hollow it out, immense forces were concentrated on the far reaches of the Crandall Canyon coal mine. Not all of them came from within the groaning mountain.

Gravity in crushing concert with geology was the immediate problem. For years, miners had ground huge gouges out of the mountain, progressing horizontally a foot at a time. Pressing down on them was a mass of rock extending up more than a third of a mile.

The other pressure was economic. The coal that rattles on conveyor belts out of the hillsides of east-central Utah sold for 50 percent more last year than five years earlier. In Crandall Canyon, the section the mine crew was working Aug. 6 had already been harvested and abandoned by a previous owner. The mine's new owner sent crews back in to gather more.

On Sunday, officials for the first time acknowledged that the six men may never be found. Relatives responded by accusing federal officials and the mine's owners of quitting on the rescue effort and leaving the men for dead.

The abrupt pessimism all but extinguished rescue hopes that had flagged steadily after almost two weeks without a sign of life and the deaths of three rescuers.

It also shifted the focus here to determining the cause of the collapse, widely believed to be related to the work the men were doing: bringing out the great chunks that held up the mine's ceiling.

"That's called 'free coal,' " said Sue Ann Martell, director of the Western Mining and Railroad Museum in nearby Helper.

The vast pillars of coal -- often half or more of the coal in a workspace -- is also called "pure profit," because there's no expense in reaching it. "All you've got to do is knock it down and put it in your car," said Martell. "It's the cheapest coal you can get."

The plan to take that coal was approved by the federal agency charged with reducing the human cost of mining, a toll that for decades ran above 2,000 lives a year nationwide. The U.S. Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) also approved the treacherous rescue plan, which ended Thursday with the deaths of three men, including an agency inspector.

The tandem catastrophes ensure that the MSHA will be under intense scrutiny once the long-established etiquette of mine disasters permits public attention to shift from the fate of the trapped men.

That process began Sunday when Robert D. Moore, vice president of Murray Energy, which co-owns the mine, announced: "It's likely these miners may not be found."

The families of the missing men were told of the new assessment in an afternoon meeting and were "very emotional," Moore said.

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