Day the hope died: Honoring the memory of Crandall rescuers

Family, friends mark anniversary, recall details of the doomed effort
This is an archived article that was published on in 2008, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

This story first run Aug. 16, 2008

The whole character of the Crandall Canyon mine disaster changed, for the worse, one year ago this evening.

At 6:38 p.m., without warning, the north wall of a tunnel exploded into a group of rescuers digging their way to six miners trapped by the mine's catastrophic collapse 10 days earlier. Rescuers Dale Black and Brandon Kimber were killed instantly. Gary Jensen, a federal Mine Safety and Health Administration inspector monitoring the operation, suffered internal injuries and died later. Six other rescuers were injured, physically and emotionally.

This horrific turn of events terminated an underground rescue fraught with setbacks from the start. And it has perpetuated doubts about whether the rescuers ever should have been exposed to such dangers given the absence of any evidence that the six now-entombed miners survived the initial implosion.

MSHA's disaster investigation report, and an independent U.S. Labor Department review of the agency's handling of Crandall Canyon, paint a harrowing picture of gallant efforts by dozens of people to free the trapped men.

Those efforts began immediately after the mine's walls imploded at 2:48 a.m. on Aug. 6, 2007, unleashing a magnitude-3.9 seismic event. Eight other miners on site that night wasted no time trying to figure out what happened and, as the extent of the damage became clear, looked for ways to locate their comrades.

Mechanics Jameson Ward and Tim Harper were the first to reach the outer edge of the devastation, Ward having left the doomed crew just three minutes before the collapse to help Harper deal with a broken-down truck.

Encountering thick dust in the air and debris in the roadway, they "heard loud, deep rumbling from continued movement of the surrounding strata and observed sloughing of the [walls] and mine roof," MSHA reported.

After miners Brian Pritt and Tim Curtis arrived with breathing apparatus, the four explored as far as they could before unstable ground conditions forced them to turn back. Pritt pounded on a water line to contact the trapped crew. There was no response.

n n n

No way through

Trained mine rescue teams were at work within four hours, but they could find no way through the rubble that choked all four tunnels carved into the South Barrier pillar, the last large block of coal left in Crandall Canyon. It was left intact originally to hold up the mine's roof.

Rescuers drained a water line that went into the missing men's section and typed messages that would have appeared on a pager carried by acting section foreman Don Erickson. "Open Valve on H2O 4 Air," the first said. Then, "Pumping Air Thru Waterline." No response.

Another mine rescue team pierced a thick seal, in hopes that adjacent tunnels in the Main West section might provide a passageway. But those entries also were damaged severely - even before a magnitude-2.6 "bounce" drove the rescue team out and temporarily exposed bare-faced miners, waiting in the background to help, to potentially deadly air.

It was clear: There was no quick way back to the missing men. So mining company officials devised a plan to remove fallen coal in the northernmost of the barrier pillar's four tunnels. Seven hours of work cleared 300 feet of tunnel. A magnitude-2.8 bounce refilled it all at 1:13 a.m. on Aug. 7.

The excavation effort shifted to the more stable southernmost tunnel. While that work proceeded at a painstakingly slow pace for nine days, a couple of bold ventures were launched, with men crawling through small openings atop the rubble.

MSHA inspector Barry Grosely and mine superintendent Gary Peacock made the first foray on Aug. 10, advancing 120 feet before they found their way blocked. Shortly thereafter, mine safety director Bodee Allred and MSHA inspector Peter Saint tried again in a different clogged tunnel. Saint made it 250 feet farther in before he, too, was forced to retreat.

Those valiant failures restricted the underground rescue effort to the methodical process of removing a few feet of coal rubble from the width of the tunnel, then stopping to allow miners to install roof and wall support materials on both sides of the cleared section. They erected steel cylinders every 2.5 feet, attached chain link fencing to the props to hold back coal chunks coming off the wall and hooked it all together with steel cables near the top, middle and bottom.

n n n

Threatening noises

The miners then retreated to a secure area while their mining machine excavated more debris. Caution was warranted. The mine was making noises behind the working crews. Bounces were continuing. One, on Aug. 15, threw coal from the tunnel's north wall across the mining machine, disrupting operations for 90 minutes. Another, on the morning of Aug. 16, magnitude 1.5, piled rubble 2 1/2 feet deep alongside the mining machine. But the roof and wall-support structure held and the day shift crew, which included Kimber and Black, just cleaned up the mess.

Mining resumed until 6:30 p.m., when a shift change was at hand. The evening crew already was underground, moving toward the working face. The mining machine had been stopped. Props had been set up on the tunnel's north side. Black, Kimber and five other miners were installing props on the south side, observed by MSHA inspectors Jensen and Frank Markosek.

n n n

Tragedy hits

That's when all hell broke loose. A magnitude-1.9 bounce violently expelled up to 20 feet of coal from the north pillar wall, carrying with it eight steel cylinders, fencing and cable. Coal piled up four feet deep in the tunnel.

Black took the full force of the explosion in the back, but his body shielded co-worker Casey Metcalf from most of the impact, leaving Metcalf "conscious and lying against the left rib entangled in chain-link fencing."

Miner Randy Bouldin was knocked off his feet. Quickly regrouping, he made his way back into the dense dust where he could hear Lester Day's "muffled voice calling for help. Bouldin asked Day where he was. Day replied that Bouldin was standing on him. Bouldin looked down and saw part of Day's shoulder exposed through the rubble and his head buried beneath large pieces of coal," MSHA reported.

Bouldin dug out Day who, despite blood pouring from a head injury, removed waist-deep coal from around Jeff Tripp, who had arrived at Crandall Canyon just hours earlier from a Murray Energy Co. mine in Ohio.

"We need lots of shovels and picks . . . we can't get them unburied," a frantic miner called to the surface. The evening shift crew and mine managers hustled to the scene, especially dangerous because the bounce released oxygen-deficient air into the atmosphere. Undeterred, they dug out the rest.

Safety director Allred helped put Kimber into the back of a pickup and administered CPR for three miles to the surface. But it was too late.

Carl Gressman and Jensen were flown to hospitals by medical helicopters, Jensen's subsequent death being hard on the Emery County EMTs who treated him on site and actually chatted with him. Day and Markosek were taken together to the Price hospital by one of four ambulances that transported victims that evening.

Black's body was removed from the mine by 8:30 p.m.

The underground rescue was over - and, with it, prospects of retrieving the six men the rescuers gave their all for.