The bodies of 12 more coal miners were found inside the Wilberg Mine late tonight, and company officials abandoned hope of finding survivors in the worst mining disaster in 14 years.
A company spokesman said officials think that the remaining two miners trapped inside the mine since Wednesday night are dead, which would bring the death toll to 27.
"The search and rescue teams have now examined all parts of the mine where survivors could possibly be found," said Robert Henrie, spokesman for the Emery Mining Corp., which operated the Wilberg Mine for the Utah Power & Light Co.
"We believe there will be no survivors, and the teams now are simply trying to locate bodies," he said.
The discovery late tonight caps a 70-hour drama that saw rescue squads battling flames and smoke in a desperate race to find the trapped coal miners.
Thirteen of the miners, including a company vice president and five other company officials had been found Friday. As of tonight all the bodies were still inside the smoke-filled mine.
"We are just heartsick at this tragedy," said John Serfustini, a spokesman for Utah Power & Light.
Just hours earlier Henrie had reported the squads had made "good progress" in making their way through a 2,700-foot-long tunnel called fifth right. But by 6:30 p.m. MST, visibly shaken family members were being escorted out of the mine company's offices after being briefed on the latest development.
The fire had erupted near the entrance to the tunnel Wednesday night, and officials had hoped that the miners fled in the opposite direction toward a small retreat chamber that contained oxygen kits.
But Henrie said at 8:40 tonight that it did not appear that the miners had found their way to the rescue chamber.
He said the bodies were found close to the places where the miners had been working.
Asked how long the officials thought that the miners had lived after the fire broke out, Henrie said "We don't expect it was very long."
Only four of the bodies found last night were positively identified. One of them included Nanette Wheeler, 33, the only woman among the 27.
Henrie said the bodies were being flown to the Utah State Medical Examiner's office in Salt Lake City to determine the cause of death.
Officials have speculated that sparks or an overheated bearing on a conveyor may have started the fire.
Earlier today, rescue units had to retreat when they encountered fire flare-ups and gassy "hot spots" as they were making their way into the fifth right shaft that squads had opened.
In a "long shot" rescue attempt, teams also were attempting to drill their way about 300 feet through a wall of coal separating Wilberg's fifth right mine shaft from the adjacent Little Dove Mine.
At a briefing with an official in Emery Mining's basement here today, one waiting relative shouted, "I just wish the hell you guys would get your act together and start finding something out." The outburst came from Carl Christensen, whose 32-year-old brother Robert was trapped in the mine.
"You just don't know what to believe any more, said Kathy Riddle whose husband, Kelly, was trapped in the mine. "It's just like a nightmare . . . . I was just about ready to crack up last night, and they had to give me a sedative and I spent the night sleeping on the floor.
"It really looks grim," she added in tears, "I seriously doubt if anybody's going to make it."
The frustration has been compounded by the debate over the mining company's attempt to set a world record for longwall mining before the Christmas holidays.
Some family members said today that the Wilberg miners had been working extra shifts in the days before the fire in an attempt to break the record and earn holiday bonuses.
"My husband complained about that to me, about all these records so they can get their big bonuses," Riddle said. "There were times he would come home and say, 'That scares me to death.'
"They had been calling up extra employes," she added. "One girl was just sick about it. She said, 'My husband wasn't even supposed to be down there.' "
The drive to set a record was criticized Friday by United Mine Workers President Richard L. Trumka. But a company spokesman insisted that Emery had not compromised workers' safety and noted that six company officials, including one vice president, had died in the mine.
"Yes, we encourage our people to set production records," spokesman Henrie said.
"Coal miners by nature are a competitive type; they try to dig the greatest amount of coal in the shortest amount of time," he said.
"The implication is that because they were trying to set a record they were compromising on safety, and there's no evidence that this was so," Henrie said.
David A. Zeeger, head of the Labor Department's Mine Safety and Health Administration, said in Washington today that his agency's emphasis to this point has been to rescue the miners and to make certain that rescuers "have all the equipment they might need."
While an investigation of the disaster is automatic, he said, "We're not thinking about that at this point."
The prospect that Emery officials could be proven negligent has brought calls from lawyers offering to represent families in potential lawsuits against the mining company. The lawyers, along with the swarms of reporters who have come to the area have angered some relatives and forced them into seclusion in the Emery basement.
"I'm sick and tired of these lawyers," Christensen said. "Why don't they just back off."