AP Interview: Mine boss defends efforts
By MICHAEL RUBINKAM, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 7 minutes ago
HUNTINGTON, Utah - Coal mine boss Bob Murray said Wednesday he is hurt by critics who say he ran an unsafe mine and wasn't doing enough to find six missing miners trapped deep underground. He also said he emotionally "came apart" after a second cave-in killed three rescuers.
"I didn't desert anybody," Murray told The Associated Press in the middle-of-the-night phone call. "I've been living on this mountain every day, living in a little trailer."
Murray, 67, described the scene of the second collapse that killed the three rescue workers and injured six others last Thursday.
He said he rushed into the mine in his street clothes and began digging out the men, buried under 5 feet of coal, with his bare hands. "I never hesitated to go in there. I was the first man in and the last man out," he said.
Murray, who has been a target of families' anger over the suspended search for the missing miners, said he later dropped out of a debriefing with federal officials and began wandering around the mine yard in the moonlight, reliving the collapse. He said he broke down.
"I came apart," he said. "I was under a doctor's care for a couple days."
Murray spoke bitterly of the United Mine Workers of America, which has called his company callous for planning to resume mining at other parts of 5,000-acre Crandall Canyon.
"They're twisting it all around to discredit me and my company," he said during the 12-minute phone call.
After the first collapse on Aug. 6, Murray became the public face of the rescue effort, saying repeatedly that the men could have survived and he would bring them home, alive or dead. But he retreated from that view after the deaths of the rescue workers. He re-emerged Monday to announce that the trapped miners would likely remain entombed in the Crandall Canyon mine.
A narrow hole being drilled in the side of the mountain holds perhaps the last, best chance of locating the men. If, as expected, searchers fail to find any sign of life, the rescue effort might be called off.
If so, the miners' family members, who have clung to the hope the men might be found alive, will finally start "to grieve and to heal," said Sonny J. Olsen, an attorney acting as spokesman for the families.
"I've witnessed these families and they're strong people," he said Tuesday. "These are very hardy people, and tragedy is not new to the mining industry. These families know what can happen in these mines. I don't know that it makes it any easier."
A drill crew working on the fifth hole expected to break through early Wednesday. Searchers plan to bang on a drill bit and wait for a response, take air readings, and lower a microphone and camera. Officials said they expect the results to be the same as the four previous tries: no signs of life.
With the trapped miners all but left for dead 1,500 feet deep inside the crumbling mountain, critics are saying the mine was a disaster waiting to happen and pointing fingers at Murray Energy Corp. and the federal government as the agents of the tragedy.
Families and friends vented their frustration at the mine's owner and questioned whether it was too dangerous to be working there.
At a funeral Tuesday for one of the rescue workers who died, a friend of one of the trapped miners confronted Murray and accused him of skimping on the rescue efforts. He then handed Murray a dollar bill.
"This is just to help you out so you don't kill him," the man said.
Murray's head snapped back as if slapped. When the man wouldn't take back the bill, Murray threw the money on the ground. "I'll tell you what, son, you need to find out about the Lord," Murray said.
It was an emotional exchange with an owner who had insisted since the collapse that the rescue of the miners was his top priority. And it revealed more than just the frustration of people in this mining community in central Utah's coal belt, where most still speak in whispers when criticizing the officials whose businesses pay their bills.
Miners' advocates accuse the Mine Safety and Health Administration of being too accommodating to the industry at the expense of safety. They also say MSHA was too quick to approve the mining plan at Crandall Canyon despite concerns that it was too dangerous for mining to continue when Murray bought it a year ago.
"No one took the time to see that it was a recipe for disaster," Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said Tuesday of the nonunion mine.
In question is the decision to allow Crandall Canyon's operators to mine between two sections that had already been excavated using a mining technique that causes the roof to collapse.
In that middle section, the mine was cut like a city block, leaving pillars of coal holding up the mountain above. MSHA approved a plan allowing the operators to pull out the pillars, a practice called "retreat mining," which causes deliberate, controlled roof cave-ins.
Experts think any investigation will focus on why MSHA agreed to that plan.
Those conditions are so unstable, some companies will leave behind the last of the coal rather than risk lives trying to pull additional pillars, experts have said.
In addition to the questions about structure, experts say that the operators and MSHA should have been aware that deep mines such as Crandall Canyon are prone to "bumps" — an unpredictable and dangerous phenomenon that happens when settling layers of earth bear down on the walls of a coal mine. The force can cause pillars to fail, turning chunks of coal into deadly missiles.
The Aug. 6 cave-in that trapped the men is believed to have been caused by a mountain bump. Since then, there have been several other bumps, including one last week that killed the rescue workers, injured six others and led MSHA to call off efforts to dig underground to the six trapped miners.
In March, a bump on the northern wall of the mine caused so much damage, operators abandoned it in favor of mining on the southern wall. MSHA approved the request to conduct retreat mining there in June.
The United Mine Workers on Tuesday called for an independent investigation into the mine, the collapse and the rescue efforts. Gov. Jon Huntsman wants MSHA to immediately inspect two Murray Energy mines in neighboring Carbon County.
Since his brother Kerry Allred went missing in the Crandall Canyon mine, Steve Allred said he has received a slew of phone calls from people who said mine conditions were unsafe.
"They tell me that they knew people that was very, very concerned about the conditions in that mine, the bounces, everything," he said.
Allred said his brother had expressed some concern, but added: "There is concern no matter which mine you are in."
He said miners have to shut out those thoughts to work underground. "If you don't, you're not going to survive as a miner," Allred said.