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Work, Not Quake, May Have Caused Mine Collapse

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The owner of a Utah coal mine has become the public face of a disaster. Amid the effort to rescue six trapped men, he's been attacking mine safety advocates and the media. We'll have more on Robert Murray in a moment.

We begin with the latest news from the collapse. It includes some clues to the question of what caused the collapse. If you believe the owner, it was an act of nature. If you believe the scientists, it was more likely the result of work in the mine itself.

NPR's Jeff Brady reports.

JEFF BRADY: A team of geologists from the University of California at Berkeley says the seismological data from the mine collapse does not match what they'd see in a natural earthquake.

Doug Dreger is the lead author of the study.

Mr. DOUG DREGER (Author): What we found is that the seismic event was in fact very different from what we typically see in earthquakes, and it seems to suggest that there was closure of an underground cavity.

BRADY: In other words, the mine collapsing. No one from Murray Energy Company, which owns the mine, was available to comment. CEO Bob Murray has emphatically maintained over the past three days that an earthquake caused the collapse and that aftershocks from it hampered rescue efforts.

In a briefing with reporters, Murray would only talk about the ongoing rescue efforts.

Mr. ROBERT MURRAY (CEO, Murray Energy Corporation): I just happened to bring a little something here that I bought out of the mine. It's what it looks like.

BRADY: Murray held two golf-ball-sized chunks of shiny black coal. He said tons of coal, just like this, sits between rescuers and the trapped miners.

Mr. MURRAY: And we'll go through this very fast to get to the men because it's loose and it's fine and it's small like this, and there are smaller pieces even than that.

BRADY: Murray says he's been worried about ventilation in the mine. But now that he has seen the area of the collapse...

Mr. MURRAY: I can tell you that I'm more optimistic than I ever was that there's ventilation back there to keep those men alive.

BRADY: Murray said crews still are removing the rubble blocking the mine; that could take a week or more. Above, he says, two drills have made significant progress boring through the 1500 feet of rock and sandstone. He thinks the two-and-a-half inch hole and another measuring eight-and-a-half inches will be completed within a day or two. That will allow rescuers to make contact with the miners if they're still alive and it will provide a way to deliver food and water to them.

Until then, residents of this mining town have scheduled gatherings every day to support each other.

Unidentified Man: Now you'll take your hats off. We'd like to have a moment of silence.

BRADY: About 200 people gathered at the rodeo grounds in Huntington for a candlelight vigil last night. They sat on rickety wooden benches under a white banner with the word hope in large letters.

Melody Sinclair's husband is a miner - not one of those trapped - but the mine collapse has clearly affected her.

Ms. MELODY SINCLAIR (Resident): Every day that your husband goes to work anywhere - I mean any tragedy or accident can happen anywhere. But when they go underground, there's no communication. That's what really makes it really hard.

BRADY: Since early Monday morning, this town has waited for the answer to one question - whether the miners are still alive. As those drills work day and night to reach the area where the miners are believed to be, the answer to that question may come as soon as this evening.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Price, Utah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.
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