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Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News
Wendy Black releases the eagle Friday in a ceremony that included a poem and prayers on a Sanpete County mountain. At left is Martin Tyner, who had nursed the bird back to health.

HUNTINGTON — The search for six miners trapped inside a collapsed part of the Crandall Canyon Mine is over.

Federal authorities suspended the rescue effort indefinitely, leaving the miners' families devastated. There is no word of when — or even if — there will be any later effort to recover the bodies of Don Erickson, Kerry Allred, Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips, Luis Hernandez and Manuel Sanchez.

"I think our trapped miners are going to be in there a long time," Colin King, a lawyer hired by the miners' families, said Friday. "I think this means that MSHA (the Mine Safety and Health Administration) has concluded the miners are dead."

Hopes of finding any signs of life faded when workers dropped a robot with a camera attached down one of the seven boreholes on Friday. All they found was debris, mud and water. It was the same outcome that they found Thursday, when they drilled the seventh hole 1,865 feet through a mountain into rubble.

The families are all, understandably, heartbroken.

"Now is not a good time," said a woman who answered the telephone at Don Erickson's home in Helper.

The Payan and Hernandez families seemed particularly hurt by the news that their loved ones may remain entombed in the Crandall Canyon Mine, said family friend Sonny Olsen.

"It has some deeper spiritual meaning," he told the Deseret Morning News. "It's more of a deeper spiritual loss for them to be left in the mountain."

Out of options

As they have done for the past 26 days, the families gathered on the outskirts of Huntington at the Desert Edge Christian Chapel for a briefing with MSHA officials.

"We basically told the families that at this point and time we've run out of options," said Rich Kulczewski, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Labor.

Each of the seven holes drilled through the mountain into areas the miners could conceivable have gone revealed no sign of the miners. Conditions inside the mine continue to deteriorate with the addition of more mud, water and debris. The robot used in Friday's final attempt down a borehole is now stuck behind a rock, and its operators hope to recover the device today.

Some families wanted rescue efforts to continue. As for drilling an eighth hole, Kulczewski said: "We just don't know where else we could put a hole to get any other information."

King said the families will follow any plans for a recovery "very carefully."

No one from Murray Energy Corp. — the company that owns the mine — was at the meeting, Olsen said. Calls to Murray Energy officials for comment late Friday were not returned.

Mine co-owner Bob Murray has clashed with the families in the past. After an Aug. 16 collapse killed three rescuers and injured six others, Murray declared the mountain "evil," and said he would suspend rescue efforts. He also told the family members the six trapped miners were likely dead.

"Mr. Murray, you promised us you would get them dead or alive," Jackie Taylor, the mother of Brandon Phillips' girlfriend, recalled asking him in a heated conversation.

Murray told the Deseret Morning News last week that he was merely the bearer of bad news and never returned to the family meetings. He shut down the Crandall Canyon Mine and laid off 170 workers at his other mines in Utah.

Feeling helpless

Across Utah's coal country, the frustration of the rescue effort has been weighing upon everyone.

"I think for the last week, I've kind of seen it coming," said Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon. "The writing has been on the wall."

Gordon was at the meeting with the families and said some were understanding of MSHA's decision to suspend the rescue. Others were angry, frustrated and disappointed, demanding that more be done.

"All of us are feeling helpless," Gordon said. "None of us like the outcome."

Olsen said that for the past 10 days, he's watched the families each come to terms on some level with the possibility their loved ones are dead. He's watched some families begin to grieve privately. What weighs heavily is the unanswered questions of what happened to the miners.

"The prospect of not knowing terrifies some of them," Olsen said. "Did they die quickly? Did some of them get away and suffocate?"

Emery County Sheriff Lamar Guymon said it has been tough for the families.

"They're giving up hope a little, because nobody knows what to do and where to go," he said Friday night.

In a statement late Friday, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. said he hoped the families would be able to get some form of closure.

"The most important thing now is for the families to feel at peace with the decision made with MSHA," he said. "These families, and the whole community, have endured so much throughout this devastating tragedy. Each family must determine their own way of gaining closure and moving on to honor those loved ones who have been lost."

The governor is asking for an interfaith memorial service for the six missing miners to be held in the next couple of weeks.

Investigations

There will be little activity in and around the Crandall Canyon Mine today. The next step is for MSHA to begin investigating the cause of the original mine collapse that trapped the six miners, and the subsequent mine "bump" that killed three rescuers. Kulczewski said that investigation is set to begin Tuesday and will likely last several months. U.S. Labor Secretary Elaine Chao announced that an outside investigation will also examine MSHA's handling of the mine disaster.

It will be difficult to investigate. Because of the seismic activity, it is considered too dangerous for miners to even venture underground into the Crandall Canyon Mine. Instead, MSHA will have to rely on interviews and documents to determine what caused the collapse. Murray has insisted it was an earthquake that caused the collapse. Seismologists say the mine collapse was itself the seismic event.

The men were trapped Aug. 6 when a portion of the Crandall Canyon Mine collapsed in an event so powerful that it registered 3.9 on the Richter scale. Three rescuers were killed and six others were hurt when a mountain "bump" that measured 1.6 in magnitude struck 10 days later.

Clair Cratsenburg, whose brother-in-law Dale Black was one of the miners killed in that rescue effort, said he was disappointed MSHA was ending the rescue but understood their reasoning.

"I'm hard-pressed to think of what else they can do," he said. "Right now, it seems to me that no matter how many holes they drill they won't find anything."

The collapse killed Black, Brandon Kimber and MSHA inspector Gary Jensen. The remaining six men are still recovering from their injuries.

Several congressional probes are also set to get under way next week. The state of Utah has also formed a panel to look into mine safety and whether states should take more control of it.

'Taken too soon'

Before they received the devastating news on Friday, the miners' families — about 60 people in all — stood together near the top of a mountain in Sanpete County.

Some prayed while touching a rehabilitated golden eagle before it was released back into the wild. There is a belief that each of the eagle's feathers can take a prayer to God.

The families listened to a poem as a light rain fell on them for a few minutes. The poem was written for the occasion by Maggie Fugate McMullin, and reads in part:

"Eagle we mourn for those we lost

Those so precious and loved

Taken so sudden in darkness and fear

Those who were so brave who followed to save

Taken too soon."


Contributing: Jens Dana


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com; bwinslow@desnews.com