Bryan Howard was praying that his pregnant wife would deliver their first baby on Christmas Day. Alex Poulos was planning a Las Vegas wedding; he and his fiance were to drive out for a quiet ceremony right after the holidays.

Today, the bodies of Howard, Poulos and 25 others remained buried deep in the Wilberg mine, site of the worst U.S. coal mining disaster in 14 years, their recovery blocked by a raging fire.

Mine officials acknowledged today that the mine may have to be permanently sealed, and the bodies may never be recovered.

As federal officials completed their evacuation of the mine area and worked to choke off the oxygen supply to the fire, the people in this isolated region about 150 miles southeast of Salt Lake City struggled to cope with a holiday tragedy that has filled them with a mixture of anguish and anger.

"How can this be? Dear God, of all times, why now?" asked the Rev. Gerald Lynch, in an emotion-choked sermon at the local Catholic church. "How do we deal with impossible situations in life?"

The answer for many came in the shared intimacy in which the people in these mining towns have long prided themselves. Emery County, an old Mormon pioneer county where the Wilberg mine is located, has about 12,000 residents and nearly everybody seems to be involved in the tragedy.

The Lady Coal Miners Association has been operating carpools from Salt Lake for the hundreds of relatives who have been flying in. The United Mine Workers union local has set up a special Wilberg disaster fund to contribute food and clothing to the 40 children who have been left without fathers.

The local Safeway and Food King stores have donated turkeys, hams and roasts. Christmas parties have been canceled, all the flags are flying at half-staff.

"People are so anxious to do something, to help out in any way they can," said Joy Huitt, the president of the Lady Coal Miners Association. "We put out one call to one of the Mormon churches, and we had a stationwagon full of casseroles, spaghetti and stew within two hours."

Yet amid the grief, there is also a shared anger here, and many residents blame the Emery Mining Corp., which operated the Wilberg mine under contract for the Utah Power & Light Co.

Slicing through a a huge coal seam in the snow-covered Manti-LaSal mountains, the Wilberg mine was rated the most productive mine in the country last year, mining more tons of coal per man-hour than any other mine.

But the pride of Emery and its employes had been wounded not long ago when a section at a Kaiser Steel mine in neighboring Carbon County set a world record for long-wall mining, producing nearly 25,000 tons of coal in one 24-hour period.

When the fire broke out Wednesday night, six Emery officials, including vice president of operations James Hamlin, were down below exhorting the miners to break Kaiser's record.

"Those men died needlessly," said Mike Dalpiaz, president of the local United Mine Workers district. "If they need that much coal, then by God, they ought to open up another coal mine. It's just totally asinine to have that kind of competition."

Emery officials insist that there is no evidence that the attempt to set a production record impaired safety procedures. And even some union members say that competition for records was a natural part of life in the mines, a gamesmanship among the miners as well as the management.

"People were gung ho over the competition in that mine all the time," said Dave Jameson, who worked at Wilberg for three years until last summer. "There was shift-to-shift competition, seeing which shift could produce the most coal. There was even section-to-section competition. There was a real drive to see who could be the best."

The difficulty of determining what caused the Wilberg disaster will be compounded by the damage caused by the fire, which continues to rage out of control.

When rescue teams were in the mine on Friday searching for survivors, they found the bodies of Hamlin and the other company officials along the wall of one of the tunnels, holding hands. For others, death appeared to be instantaneous: some miners were found clutching oxygen respirators they hadn't had time to clip on. Others were found at their work places.

The rescue teams had begun to move the bodies to the main shaft when the fire flared again and forced them to withdraw. Now families are faced with the prospect that the bodies will never be recovered.

"It's a sensitive thing. We may very well get the bodies out, but it may be that the mine is permanently sealed," Bob Henrie, spokesman for Emery, told the Associated Press. "We simply won't know, depending on what happens with the fire."

John Serfustini, a spokesman for Utah Power & Light Co., told the AP that the utility is donating $1,000 to each of the 27 families in checks that were to be delivered today.