HUNTINGTON, Utah (AP) — Rescue crews clinging to a mountainside struggled yesterday to drill two narrow holes — one just 2½ inches across, the other less than 9 inches — in a painfully slow effort to get air and food to six miners trapped in a cave-in.
Officials held out hope that the men survived Monday's thunderous collapse and that the emergency supplies would help keep them alive while other rescuers tried to punch their way through the rubble in the mine shaft and bring them out. VIDEO: Inside the mine
The smaller hole was 875 feet down last night, more than halfway to its target, said Bob Murray, chairman of mine co-owner Murray Energy Corp. The larger drill was just 20 feet down last night but was progressing faster and was expected to catch up, said Rob Moore, Murray Energy vice president.
Crews could break through in 48 hours or less, the company said.
"Obviously, we're dealing with the unknown," Mr. Moore said, referring to the potential for equipment breakdowns and dangerous ground shifts.
The rate of progress is "very, very good news," Mr. Murray said earlier. But it could take at least seven days to actually reach the men and bring them out, he said.
The drilling of the relief holes involved boring an extraordinary 1,500 feet straight down, or 150 stories into the earth, through hard sandstone — a task that required precise alignment of the drill and posed the constant risk of a broken bit.
Over the past few days, the rescuers had to bulldoze 8,000 feet of road across the wilderness and use a helicopter to bring in heavy equipment. They had to balance their drilling rig on a 23-degree mountainside. Then they had to begin boring 1,500 feet straight down.
The circumstances made the rescue operation "extremely hard, one of the toughest we've had to deal with," said Allyn Davis, who oversees Western mine-safety operations for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"In two days, if they continue this pace, that hole will be down to where we want it to be," Mr. Murray said, adding that if the men are still alive, "we can provide everything they need, including a toothbrush and a comb, to keep them alive until the underground effort gets to them."
The smaller hole could be used to ferry a communications line into the shaft. The larger hole, being drilled with more accurate technology, could be used to move provisions to the workers. But two holes have to be drilled in case one is unsuccessful, Mr. Murray said.
Nothing has been heard from the men since the cave-in, not even the hammering on the ceiling that miners are trained to do in an emergency. Only one miner has been identified. The men range from one miner with three weeks on the job to others with 10 years' experience, mine safety manager Bodee Allred said.
Two of the miners' relatives took an underground tour with Mr. Murray, then gave a private update to other families.
"They will go underground in this mine whenever they want to until this dramatic event is ended," Mr. Murray said.
Mr. Murray offered no estimate on how long the miners could survive — that is, if they are still alive — but backed off a Tuesday claim that they could subsist for perhaps weeks on available air.
"The oxygen depends on the size of the cavity they are in, and I have no idea what size that cavity is," he said yesterday.