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HUNTINGTON - The rescue effort that began with hope and prayers Aug. 6 for six men trapped in the collapsed Crandall Canyon mine ended Friday with the realization that no one could have survived the disaster and its aftermath.
Friday at 5:30 p.m., officials of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration announced to the families of the missing men that the mission - which with each passing day seemed more like a recovery than a rescue - had been suspended indefinitely.
"They are done. It's finished," said Colin King, a Salt Lake City-based attorney who represents the families of the missing miners. "It's a hard and bitter pill for our families, and there were quite a few tears shed."
Chris Allred, a cousin of trapped miner Kerry Allred, wishes the search had not been called off. She said Friday evening that she doesn't know what her family will do at this point.
"We'll try to go on and decide if we are going to have a funeral or a memorial service."
She recalled her cousin as a "strong person, a good person" who would have done what he could to help his fellow miners survive. But she believes that Kerry and the others were killed in the initial collapse.
There are no plans to re-enter the tunnel where a second massive cave-in killed three rescuers and injured six others Aug. 16, said MSHA spokesman Rich Kulczewski.
"It's out of the question for the foreseeable future," he said. "We wanted to rescue six miners. That's what got us all here. We hope that the families can someday recover the bodies."
Further, there are no plans to drill more holes into mine tunnels from the mountaintop above.
A robotic camera lowered down borehole No. 4 found "nothing but mud," Kulczewski said Friday.
On Thursday, drill crews punched through a seventh hole, only to find what was left of a partially collapsed tunnel filled with mud and water. The same was true for borehole No. 2.
"At this point in time, we've run out of options," Kulczewski said. "This was very difficult to tell the families."
An MSHA investigation scheduled to begin Tuesday could eventually shed light on a way to retrieve the bodies of Allred, Don Erickson, Luis Hernandez, Juan Carlos Payan, Brandon Phillips and Manuel Sanchez.
But the families' attorney said there were no assurances from federal officials that the bodies ever would be recovered.
"I asked them for a recovery plan down the road," King said. "They had no answer."
King said his law firm will now begin a probe of the Crandall Canyon catastrophe. "We will investigate the legal options available" to the families.
The U.S. Department of Labor announced Thursday that it would investigate the role MSHA played in the Crandall Canyon disaster, and that a second panel would look into the agency's role in the rescue effort.
Shortly after Robert Murray purchased 50 percent ownership in the mine in August 2006, his company, Murray Energy Corp., and its subsidiary, UtahAmerican Energy Inc., successfully petitioned MSHA to allow mining of barrier walls at Crandall Canyon.
Federal documents are at odds with Murray's repeated assertions that his company was not engaged in so-called retreat mining, where support structures are removed, allowing tunnels to collapse.
The mine's previous owner, Andalex, had determined not to mine those barriers, according to records at the Utah Division of Oil, Gas and Mining, because it posed a risk to worker safety.
The tragedy has brought the communities of Utah's coal country together. Fund-raisers, vigils and celebrations have been held across Emery and Carbon counties in support of the miners and their families.
But bad news day in and day out across more than three weeks has worn on the spirits of the families, the community and mine company officials.
The disaster eventually pitted Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. against Murray after the mine owner told the families bluntly on Aug. 20 their loved ones were dead and would never be brought out of the mine.
The governor called Murray's treatment of them "unconscionable" and said Murray's other operations should be inspected for safety.
Murray fired back a letter advising Huntsman that the mine boss wouldn't be the governor's "whipping boy." He also told Huntsman that he needed help keeping miners employed.
Last week, Murray laid off 170 workers from his Tower mine for a safety inspection. About a dozen were bused to mines in Ohio and Illinois.
Having been the face of the rescue operation for three weeks, Murray disappeared about the time of the layoffs. King said the families have not heard from him since then. No representative from Murray Energy attended Friday's meeting where the families were informed the search had ended. Calls to Murray Energy and UtahAmerican were not returned Friday.
The governor said Friday evening that he respects the decision to suspend rescue efforts, as long as it was made in conjunction with the families.