HUNTINGTON, Utah - For 10 days, miners braved the rubble-strewn mine to try to reach their fallen comrades trapped deep within.
But after a series of setbacks, nerve-jangling mountain 'bumps' and a second collapse that killed three rescuers, a new sentiment emerged Friday: Abandon the rescue effort and concede defeat to a mountain that appeared to be slowly crumbling.
'Is there any possible way we can continue this underground operation and provide safety for the rescue workers? At this point we don't have an answer,' Richard Stickler, head of the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, said as he announced that officials had suspended the rescue operation indefinitely.
The collapse Thursday night killed three rescue workers and injured six others who were trying to tunnel through rubble to reach six men trapped since Aug. 6 after a massive cave-in. Crews on Friday were still drilling a fourth hole into the mountain to look for any sign of the missing men.
'Without question, we have suffered a setback, and we have incurred an incredible loss. But this team remains focused on the task at hand' - the rescue of the miners, said Rob Moore, vice president of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner of the mine.
Said Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, who ordered flags lowered to half-staff: 'We went from a tragedy to a catastrophe.'
Huntsman continued to call the effort a 'rescue operation,' but he said the digging would not resume until workers' safety could be guaranteed.
'Let us ensure that we have no more injuries. We have suffered enough as a state,' he said.
Mexico's consul in Salt Lake City, Salvador Jimenez, said he spoke with Huntsman and urged him to continue the rescue effort. While experts need to study the best way to do it safely, 'this effort should not be interrupted,' Munoz said. Three of the six men still trapped are Mexican nationals.
The cave-in at 6:39 p.m. was believed to be caused by a 'mountain bump,' in which shifting layers of earth forced chunks of rock from the walls. The force from the bump registered a magnitude 1.6 at the University of Utah seismograph stations in Salt Lake City.
'These events seem to be related to ongoing settling of the rock mass following the main event,' university spokesman Lee Siegel said. 'I don't think I'm going too far to say that this mountain is collapsing in slow motion.'
Stickler said the bump unleashed a massive blast of coal and support material that buried the miners working to clear rubble from the underground tunnel. The blast created a destruction zone about 30 feet long along a wall of the chamber and knocked out steel posts, chain link fencing and the cables that tied everything together.