- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 18, 2007

BARTON, Md. — Crews yesterday moved thousands of tons of rock at an open pit coal mine in an attempt to rescue two men trapped under a pile of rubble at least 40 feet deep.

The miners were trapped Tuesday morning when the bottom of a high wall collapsed, burying them and the equipment they were operating, said Bob Cornett, acting district manager for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA).

The collapse created a layer of rocks that ranges from 40 feet to 80 feet deep, but rescuers think the collapse pushed the men and their equipment toward the shallower end.

“There are some very large rocks on that side that you can see gaps, spaces, vacuums or holes that potentially, if the machinery was pushed that way, there could be air pockets,” Mr. Cornett said.

He said one man was using a tracked backhoe and one was using a loader at the Tri-Star Job No. 3 mine near Barton. Both pieces of equipment have enclosed cabs and citizens band radios, although the miners have not communicated with anyone since the collapse.

Mr. Cornett said he did not think the machines were equipped with emergency breathing apparatus.

“We will continue this as a rescue operation until we know it’s not,” he said.

The miners were working at the bottom of the pit, alongside the high wall, when the collapse was reported at 10:05 a.m. Tuesday. The wall is between 100 and 125 feet high.

The cause of the collapse was not known, but Mr. Cornett said rain tends to cause more high-wall failures at this time of year.

It rained heavily in the area over the weekend. “Regarding the rain, it could be a contributor,” he said.

The site is in a rugged area of the Western Maryland mountains called Georges Creek and is near the Eastern Continental Divide. The region is dotted with abandoned mines and fading former company towns.

Workers brought in a shovel machine weighing 750 tons Tuesday evening and began using it to load trucks at a rate of about 2,500 tons an hour.

However, work was slowed at times by the instability of the debris. Also, a boulder the size of two pickup trucks blocked workers’ progress yesterday; Mr. Cornett said they were trying to move it.

The miners’ families were being updated hourly. “They have strong families” who “believe in God and trust God,” Mr. Cornett said.

Tri-Star Mining Inc. of Barton has 15 to 20 people working on the rescue, along with eight from MSHA, and local firefighters.

Owner George R. Beener was at the site, said a woman who answered the phone at a mine office. She said the company had no comment and declined to identify herself.

J. Davitt McAteer, a former MSHA head under the Clinton administration who is now a consultant in Shepherdstown, W.Va., said surface mines are generally safer than deep mines. But early spring weather, with its heavy rains and periods of freezing and thawing, can weaken the high walls of surface mines and cause them to collapse, he said.

Mr. McAteer said the risk of collapse can be reduced by cutting terraces into the wall to take some of the weight off the bottom. It was not known whether the Tri-Star mine was terraced.

Mr. McAteer said the steel-framed cabs of surface-mining vehicles are required to withstand a certain amount of pressure. He said the weakest points are usually the windows, which miners sometimes open as they work.

According to MSHA, the mine has had no fatal injuries since at least 1995 and was not cited for violations in its most recent inspection, which began March 5. The mine employed 51 persons at the end of 2006 and produced nearly 653,000 tons of coal last year.

The company operates at least two other surface mines in Maryland, said Ron Wyatt, a family liaison for MSHA.

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