A rescue team found the bodies of four miners tonight, bringing to 13 the number recovered from a mine afire for two days, officials said. Workers continued to search as hopes dimmed for 14 thought to be trapped.
Nine bodies were found this morning about 200 feet from the fire, and four this evening about 300 to 400 feet farther down the tunnel. Rescue crews hoped to advance several hundred feet more during the night.
The miners, 26 men and one woman, were trapped inside the Wilberg Mine in central Utah when a blaze broke out Wednesday night. Utah Power & Light Co. owns the mine.
Releasing names of some of the dead tonight, Robert Henrie, spokesman for the mine's operator, Emery Mining Co., said, "They were well-seasoned men. They were among the top operations leadership at Emery Mining. I have a deep sense of loss, a great sense of compassion . . . it's just a terrible tragedy."
"We still maintain some hope" that the other trapped miners got to a safe place, Henrie said. "But clearly, as we get deeper and as more bodies are found, our hopes are dimmed."
Workers did not remove any of the 13 bodies, saying federal officials had ordered them not to because "of the limited amount of time to recover any of the survivors," Henrie said.
The rescue team had been temporarily halted this afternoon when it encountered severe heat and had to focus its attention on cooling the area. Henrie said rescuers resumed probing the depths after the fires were contained.
The miners were trapped as they worked to set a record for tonnage in a single day. The mine is composed of horizontal tunnels drilled into the side of a mountain, with no vertical shafts.
Earlier today, as grief-stricken relatives gathered at the mine, the five-member search team trying to reach the chamber was temporarily driven back by flying chunks of hot coal and a faulty foam-generating machine.
Repairs to the machine were made, and the searchers set out again for the 300-foot-long chamber about 1 1/2 miles inside the mine, but they encountered the hot spots that halted their journey a second time.
Before the four bodies were found tonight, Henrie said there was reason to hope for survival of those missing. They had not been heard from since the fire started.
"Apparently the air's getting a little better, and the fact that the section is not in bad shape is encouraging," he said. "We have every expectation they will be in the tunnel, hopefully the farthest part of the tunnel."
He said mine-safety experts speculate that the chamber may have oxygen for five or six days.
Henrie said a three-inch-wide bore hole is being drilled from the adjacent Little Dell Mine 600 feet into the Wilberg chamber and could allow air, water and food to reach any survivors. Federal mine officials said the hole may not be finished until Saturday morning.
Meanwhile, a special medical team experienced in underground rescue was flown to the site from Pennsylvania, Henrie said.
He said the first nine bodies "were found in an area that would indicate that they were trying to evacuate themselves from the mine rather than retreat to a safe area."
"The bodies were all in the same general proximity, which indicates they were moving out in a group," he said.
Officials said they believe that the nine were trying to follow the route taken by Kenneth Blake, 32, who escaped the mine minutes after the blaze was discovered.
A few hours after the nine bodies were discovered, they were identified from brass name tags and personal identification. Relatives were notified, and stunned, weary family members began arriving at the company's headquarters in Huntington about 7:30 a.m., 30 minutes after announcement that the first bodies had been found. The relatives were taken into a locked room at the headquarters, and armed guards were posted. The family members were there "basically . . . to comfort one another and to have immediate access to communications from the mine," Henrie said.
The mine is eight miles north of Orangeville and 150 miles southeast of Salt Lake City.
Three five-member teams wearing oxygen masks and protective clothing were sent into the main tunnel about 4:30 a.m. today after firefighting crews contained the blaze. Team members were linked by rope and moved single-file through the tunnel.
The fire, believed to have been caused by an overheated bearing in a conveyor belt, erupted as the 22 workers and five company officials reportedly worked to break a one-day tonnage record for longwall coal mining -- a process in which machines gouge coal from a lengthy area of a seam.
Henrie said a fire-alarm system was responsible for safe evacuation Wednesday night of 90 workers elsewhere in the mine.
Henrie said no other fires had been reported in the five years that Emery Mining has operated the mine for Utah Power & Light.
"There's no question that coal mining is a hazardous profession. It always has been and always will be," he said.
"You're sending people miles into Mother Earth, operating huge equipment, moving huge volumes of materials. You can do all kinds of things to make it safer . . . but nevertheless you're still subject to all kinds of variables in a mine that are beyond your control," he said.
Henrie said the incidence of accidents at Emery Mining's complex of mines based on the number of man hours is slightly above the national average.