Families of Utah Mine Victims Levy Blame

The Associated Press
Wednesday, October 3, 2007; 4:55 PM

WASHINGTON -- Surrounded by family photos, relatives of the nine victims of Utah's Crandall Canyon Mine collapse told lawmakers Wednesday they blame the government and mine owners for the fatal cave-in.

Several of the miners had seen signs of trouble before the Aug. 6 accident but feared retribution if they complained, family members told a House committee.

After the cave-in, they said, they struggled to get information about rescue efforts from co-owner Bob Murray and the government's Mine Safety and Health Administration. By law, that agency is supposed to control communications with the families.

Six miners trapped during the initial cave-in are presumed dead, entombed 1,500 feet below ground. Three rescuers were killed in a second collapse Aug. 16.

"We want the truth of what happened," said Cesar Sanchez, whose brother, Manuel, died in the mine. "I feel like this is not being investigated at all."

The hearing before the House Education and Labor Committee was the second this week as lawmakers consider new mine safety laws.

Unlike Tuesday's Senate hearing, which focused on the government's oversight of the mine, the House hearing focused on the families' concerns.

Lawmakers listened intently. The only background noise came from the sobs of 5-year-old Gage Phillips, whose father, Brandon, was a victim. Their eyes followed Gage as he scrambled out of the audience and into the arms of his grandmother, Sheila Phillips, at the witness table.

"It is hard to have hope, only to have your heart broke everyday," Sheila Phillips told the committee. "It is hard to see your grandson left fatherless."

Family members were particularly critical of federal agency.

During the rescue, the agency's chief, Richard Stickler, regularly was upstaged at news conferences by the blustering Murray, who often contradicted the government's explanation of the collapse.

Family members reported that Murray yelled at them and was defensive and threatening in their meetings. They said the agency should have prevented that.

Agency officials held a conference call with reporters Wednesday afternoon to defend themselves.

Stickler said he could not keep Murray from speaking and could not control Murray's behavior off mine property. Stickler did have a local sheriff keep Murray away from the families after one confrontation.

"I would welcome any legislation that would improve what we can do," Stickler told reporters. "My goal was to treat the family members like I would want my family to be treated. That's what I tried to do."

The Crandall Canyon accident came a year after several high-profile coal mine disasters spurred a flurry of new safety laws.

Lawmakers on Wednesday pledged to pass additional legislation that would improve safety, give miners a way to complain anonymously about safety concerns and improve the government's response during accidents.

"We have the responsibility to make sure people can go to work and come home safely," said Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill. "Anything short of that is shame on us."

© 2007 The Associated Press