HUNTINGTON, Utah (AP) - Drill rigs perched on a steep mountain chewed through sandstone to within a few hundred feet early Thursday of six coal miners caught in a collapse 1,500 feet underground, one of the mine's co-owners said.
The machines were meant to open a slender lifeline if the men were still alive, but crews could not be certain they had cut the 2½-inch-diameter hole on target.
The hole reached 1,300 feet deep, said Bob Murray, chairman of mine co-owner Murray Energy Corp. That left as little as 200 feet before rescuers could reach the chamber where the men were believed to be trapped and finally learn if the miners survived the cave-in early Monday.
Another hole, slightly less than 9 inches wide, was being drilled and officials hoped it could break through by Friday, Murray said.
The smaller hole would allow a communications line to be lowered to the entombed miners, while the larger shaft would permit food and water to be lowered into the depths.
"We will put cameras down. We will provide communication. We will provide food. We could keep them alive indefinitely," he said.
The mining company predicted both holes could be finished in 48 hours or less, although there was potential for equipment breakdowns and dangerous ground shifts.
"Obviously we're dealing with the unknown," said Rob Moore, vice president of Murray Energy.
The drilling crews made significant progress overnight. Efforts to clear rubble blocking a tunnel to the miners also made steady progress, Murray said in a pre-dawn update.
The miners were believed to be about 3½ miles from the entrance to the Crandall Canyon mine 140 miles south of Salt Lake City.
"With a little help from God and a little luck, they'll get out," said mine safety manager Bodee Allred.
The miners' families have been receiving private briefings on the rescue effort from Murray, who said he took two relatives of the trapped miners underground Wednesday to show them the rescue efforts.
Murray's company has 19 mines in five states that vary widely in the number of fines, citations and injuries, according to an Associated Press review of federal Mine Safety and Health Administration records.
At Crandall Canyon mine, the safety record was remarkably good, said R. Larry Grayson, a professor of mining engineering at Penn State University.
On Wednesday, Murray led a truckload of journalists to just outside the mine's entrance in a narrow canyon surrounded by the national forest.
Two parallel shafts lead deep into the mine, linked by smaller tunnels about every 130 feet. The walls of both passageways appeared to have imploded, creating a debris pile of dirt, coal and splintered timbers that nearly fills the 8 foot by 14 foot mine shafts.
On the mountain above the mine, the drilling effort illustrated the dangers associated with the type of deep mining practiced in the West, where the terrain is rougher than it is in Appalachia and the coal mines are dug far, far deeper.
In recent days, the rescuers had to bulldoze 8,000 feet of road across the wilderness to bring in one rig and use a helicopter to bring in the other. One rig had to be balanced on the 23-degree mountainside.
The circumstances made the rescue operation "extremely hard, one of the toughest we've had to deal with," said Allyn Davis, who oversees Western mine safety operations for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Ten miles away in the small town of Huntington, several hundred people filled bleachers at the rodeo grounds Wednesday night for a candlelight vigil.
At one point during a meeting at a school earlier Wednesday with the miners' families, Murray stepped outside, paced around and went back in.
Maria Buenrostro, the sister of trapped miner Manuel Sanchez, said Murray got angry with relatives' questions and walked out. She also said there was no interpreter for three Spanish-speaking families.
"We want the truth, that's all we want," said Buenrostro, 40. "If there's nothing that they can do about it, you know, just tell us so we know what to expect when they bring them out."