Crews complete drilling of wider hole into Utah mountain in search of miners

HUNTINGTON, Utah (AP) - A second drill broke through early Saturday to a mine shaft where officials hope to find six trapped workers, clearing the way for a video camera to be lowered and provide the first answers to the miners' fate.

Nearly 9 inches wide, the hole reached the mine shaft between just before 3 a.m., said Bob Murray, chief of mine co-owner Murray Energy Corp. Crews were removing the heavy drill steel and planned send down the camera within a few hours.

There has been no word from the miners since the Crandall Canyon mine collapsed early Monday. A microphone lowered into a smaller hole yielded no sounds of life and an air sample taken through the 2-inch hole detected little oxygen.

However, officials remained hopeful that the six men trapped in the mine were still alive.

"It's always been a rescue mission," Murray said after announcing the second drill hole was finished. "The activity is at a very fast pace. The progress is way too slow for me and I think for anyone."

The first images from the video camera weren't expected until later Saturday morning. Murray said the camera could scan 300 feet in all directions, but the miners could be anywhere in a vast cavity 1,300 feet long by 500 feet wide. Visibility could also be hampered by mounds of debris that shook loose from the mine ceiling and walls five days before.

Murray planned to meet with the miners' families before providing more details.

Rescuers hoped to see anything positive after days of feverish work and no signs that the miners were alive. The first drill hole provided only disappointment when the microphone picked up no sounds and the air sample results were well below breathable.

The initial readings from the smaller drill hole showed oxygen levels above a very breathable 20 percent, but were samples from the bore hole itself and not the mine, Murray said.

When the drill was raised a few feet to clear it from debris, the oxygen readings fell to just over 7 percent - too low to sustain life - and have remained there, said Richard Stickler, head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.

There was no sign of carbon dioxide to indicate that people below were exhaling. But mine officials kept up hope, saying the miners may have fled to a nearby 1,000-foot-long exit tunnel that could have more oxygen.

Mine officials said the drill drifted on its long descent through the hard sandstone and speculated that it had penetrated an old, sealed-off work area, where low oxygen levels would be expected. Further measurements showed the drill actually hit an active mining section.

Crews also continued their tireless horizontal dig toward the miners, struggling to remove the rubble from the mine shaft. It could take another week to actually reach the men and bring them out.

If the miners are alive, the nearly 9-inch-wide hole also would be big enough to send food and water down the 1,886 feet into the mine, Stickler said.

The mother of missing miner Don Erickson refused to be discouraged.

"We keep getting these other bits and pieces that are encouraging, so we're going to hold onto that for now," said the 69-year-old woman, who asked that her name not be used because she did not want to receive calls.

Around Huntington, a rugged town of around 2,000, the men's plight evoked a similar, understated reaction, reflecting perhaps the stoicism of a community well-acquainted with the risks of digging coal deep below the earth's surface.

That changed somewhat Friday night, when some 300 people attended a candlelight vigil honoring the workers. Outside the Huntington elementary school, residents left well-wishing notes on poster boards bearing large pictures of the miners.

Anika Farmer, 30, the wife of a coal miner from a different nearby mine, wiped away tears as she addressed the vigil crowd.

The mining company has not identified the miners, but The Associated Press has learned they are a crew of veterans and novices. According to family and friends, they are: Carlos Payan, in his 20s; Kerry Allred, 57; Manuel Sanchez, 41; Brandon Phillips, 24; Luis Hernandez, 23; and Erickson, 50.

"When the news spread of this earthquake, the wives of all miners dropped to their knees in prayer and begged the Lord that this was not our husband, not our sons," Farmer said, her voice cracking. "As the six families were located and told of who was in the mines, six wives couldn't get off their knees."

Huntington displayed signs of hope for the miners. Red, yellow and blue ribbons hung from light poles, and over Earl's Bargains furniture store a sign declared, "We believe." Another sign read: "Light up your porch until they come home."

Married to wife Nelda for about a dozen years, Erickson is a father of two and stepfather to his wife's three children, she said. Nelda Erickson told the AP that her husband loved the outdoors, camping and four-wheeling.

Payan had not worked very long at the mine and planned to return soon to Mexico, according to two friends. A sister lives in Huntington, and their parents traveled from Mexico after the cave-in.

"He wasn't out a lot. He just worked and worked and worked," said family friend Iliana Sebreros, 13.

Sanchez, 41, from the Mexican state of Chihuahua, has been a miner for 15 years.

Phillips and Allred had attended high school in Castle Dale, near Huntington.

Allred, who played in a rock band while in high school, has three children, all adults, acquaintances said. Marcey Wilson, a neighbor of Phillips in Orangeville, said her husband, who works at the mine, trained Phillips three weeks ago. "He was a sweet, sweet guy," Wilson said.

Hernandez, originally from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, is married with a 1-year-old daughter, his uncle Clemente Hernandez said. The miner has been working in U.S. mines for about two years and in Crandall Canyon since June, he said.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)