HUNTINGTON, Utah (AP) - Six coal miners caught in a cave-in are probably dead and may forever be entombed in the mountain, officials conceded yesterday, all but abandoning the unflinching optimism they have maintained publicly for nearly two weeks.
Relatives responded by accusing federal officials and the mine's owners of quitting on the rescue effort and leaving the men for dead.
"We feel that they've given up and that they are just waiting for the six miners to expire," said Sonny Olsen, a spokesman for the families, reading from a prepared statement as about 70 relatives of the trapped miners stood behind him.
Air readings from a fourth hole drilled more than 1,500 feet into the mountainside found insufficient oxygen to support life, said Rob Moore, vice president of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner of the Crandall Canyon Mine.
"It's likely these miners may not be found," Mr. Moore said, expressing a marked shift in tone in his mine officials' assessments of the chances the men would be rescued, hopes they had maintained even after three rescuers were killed and six more hurt Thursday in another "bump" inside the mountain.
The families of the missing miners demanded that rescuers immediately begin drilling a 30-inch hole into which a rescue capsule could be lowered.
"We are here at the mercies of the officials in charge and their so-called experts. Precious time is being squandered here, and we do not have time to spare," Mr. Olsen said.
A rescue capsule was used in 2002 to pluck nine trapped miners from the flooded Quecreek mine in western Pennsylvania. But those miners were only about 230 feet below the surface, and the drilling took place on a gently rolling dairy farm.
The Utah miners are thought to be more than 1,500 feet beneath the surface, with drillers having to work atop a steep sandstone cliff.
Also, at Quecreek, rescue workers heard tapping sounds hours after the miners became trapped, indicating at least some of them were alive. Work began on the rescue shaft later that day, and the whole ordeal was over in just over three days.
At Crandall Canyon, there has been little evidence that the six miners survived the initial Aug. 6 collapse. Workers have gained limited access to the mine through four boreholes into which video cameras and microphones were lowered. Rescuers banged on a drill bit and set off explosives Saturday, hoping to elicit a response from the men, yet their efforts were again met with silence.
Engineering specialist from around the nation gathered at the mine yesterday to try to figure out a safe way of reaching the missing men. Underground tunneling has been halted since Thursday's deaths.