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Cave-in traps Utah coal miners

HUNTINGTON, Utah - Hundreds of rescuers broke through walls of rock Monday in a desperate race to reach six coal miners trapped 1,500 feet below ground by a cave-in so powerful authorities initially thought it was an earthquake.

Hours after the collapse, searchers had been unable to contact the miners and could not say whether they were dead or alive. If they survived, a mine executive said, they could have enough air and water to last several days.

'We're going to get them,' said Robert E. Murray, chairman of Murray Energy Corp. of Cleveland, a part-owner of the Crandall Canyon mine. 'There is nothing on my mind right now except getting those miners out.'

The mining crew was believed to be about four miles from the mine entrance. Rescuers were working to free the men by drilling into the mine vertically from the mountaintop and horizontally from the side, Murray said.

If they are able to open an old mine shaft, he added, rescuers believe they can get within 100 feet of where the men are trapped.

'The idea is to get a hole into where they are,' Murray said. 'They could be in a chamber 1,000 feet long or they could be dead. We just don't know right now.'

Federal mine-safety inspectors, who have issued more than 300 citations against the mine since January 2004, were also on hand to help oversee the search.

Murray said no expense would be spared to save the men. The company had enlisted the help of 200 employees and four rescue crews, and brought in all available equipment from around the state.

The mine is built into a mountain in the rugged Manti-La Sal National Forest, 140 miles south of Salt Lake City, in a sparsely populated area.

By mid-afternoon, rescuers were within 1,700 feet of the miners' presumed location, Murray said. It was not known what kind of breathing equipment the miners had.

University of Utah seismograph stations recorded seismic waves of 3.9 magnitude early Monday in the area of the mine, causing speculation that a minor earthquake had caused the cave-in. Scientists later realized the collapse at the mine had caused the disturbance.

'There is no evidence that the earthquake triggered the mine collapse,' said Walter Arabasz, director of the seismography stations.

Murray disputed those findings, saying the epicenter was a mile from the trapped miners.

'The whole problem has been caused by an earthquake,' Murray angrily insisted.

Since the mid-1990s, at least a half-dozen other mine collapses have caused similar seismic waves, including a 1995 cave-in in southwestern Wyoming that caused readings as high as a magnitude 5.4.

Murray believed the miners have plenty of air because oxygen naturally leaks into the mine. The mine also is stocked with drinking water.