- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2007

HUNTINGTON, Utah (AP) — The latest hole drilled into the mountain where six coal miners are trapped showed oxygen levels high enough to support life “indefinitely,” the mine’s co-owner said today. That, combined with mysterious sounds briefly coming from the mine, raised hopes that the men could have survived 10 days underground.

Officials said results of air-quality samples taken from an intact chamber, accessed by the third deep borehole rescuers have drilled into the Crandall Canyon Mine, showed oxygen levels of roughly 15 percent to 16 percent.

Normal oxygen levels are 21 percent, and readings in other parts of the mine taken since the Aug. 6 collapse have registered levels as low as 7 percent. At 15 percent oxygen, a person would experience effects such as elevated heart and breathing rates, according to Richard Stickler, head of the federal Mine Health and Safety Administration (MHSA).

Video images from the same shaft showed an undamaged section complete with a ventilation curtain that divides intake air from exhaust air. Behind the curtain, in theory, the men might have found refuge and breathable air when the mine collapsed 10 days ago.

“If the men went in there, they could be alive,” mine co-owner Bob Murray told Associated Press late yesterday. “There was no damage at all. The roof is intact … the floors are in place — it looked just as it did when we mined it.”

Plans to drill a fourth hole also were under way today. That hole had been planned for more than a day, but its location was changed after the noise was detected by devices monitoring vibrations in the mountain, raising some hope the men might be found alive.

The sounds detected yesterday could be a rock breaking underground or even an animal, Mr. Stickler said.

“We saw some indication of noise for a period of about five minutes that we had not seen before,” he said. Nothing had been heard since the five-minute period yesterday, he said today.

The choice of where to drill the narrow holes deep into the mountain amount to little more than educated guesses.

“There are a lot of possibilities,” Mr. Stickler said. “We started with logical thinking: ‘If I were in this situation, what would I do?’ That has guided us in where we look.”

The men, if they survived the Aug. 6 collapse, could be huddled together or spread out anywhere in an underground area the size of several football fields.

“There’s always a chance. You have to hang on to that chance. But realistically it is small, quite small,” said J. Davitt McAteer, former head of MHSA. “You would have to have every single break and divine intervention to successfully extract these guys.”

Meanwhile, crews continued to slowly dig an underground path to the men’s presumed location. By early today, they had cleared 826 feet of the roughly 2,000 feet needed to reach a spot where they think the miners could be. Officials had said the work could last another week.