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Crandall Canyon miner families wonder: Why not my loved one?

Crandall Canyon mine bore hole drilling operation near Huntington on Aug. 21, 2007.
Crandall Canyon mine bore hole drilling operation near Huntington on Aug. 21, 2007.
KSL-TV, Chopper 5

HUNTINGTON — There were no cheers, chanting and flag waving. No triumphant rescue or poignant reunions. As the world reveled in the miraculous retrieval of 33 miners from a Chilean copper and gold mine, the small town of Huntington remembered their own mining disaster — the one without the happy ending. Yet, despite the painful memories, several family members of the miners who died say they are relieved to witness a recovery.

"I'm just glad to see that somebody can be rescued," said Sheila Phillips, mother of Brandon Phillips, who was 24 when he died at Crandall Canyon in August 2007. "Just glad to see that they've got some kind of improvement, that now they know how to do that."

Watching the news from Chile brought memories rushing back, but Phillips understands that the situations were very different — different mines, different disasters.

In Crandall Canyon, miners entered at the base and went straight into the heart of the mountain to look for coal, which is found in seams or uniform layers.

In Chile, the hard-rock miners at San Jose drove down a spiral ramp and off into the different mining outshoots to look for gold and copper which are found in oddly shaped clumps, said Michael Nelson, chair of the mining engineering department at the University of Utah.

As miners harvest coal, they must leave supportive pillars to prevent roof collapse, though in some situations, those pillars, too, can be mined as workers go backward allowing for the planned collapse.

In the Crandall Canyon mine, "for a variety of reasons that may never be known, as they were removing the pillar it got overstressed, and it failed," Nelson said.

Such failures are called pillar bursts or bounces and are extremely violent and damaging, due to the massive pressure. The Aug. 6 Crandall Canyon bounce was initially labeled an earthquake because it registered 3.9 on the Richter scale.

"I believe these men ever knew what hit them," said Huntington Mayor Hilary Gordon. "I don't believe they were trapped and left. I believe they were buried instantly."

"Maybe it's because I want to," she continued. "I don't want to think of them ever suffering."

And it's a logical assumption, given that a second, smaller, burst on Aug. 16 killed rescue workers Dale Black, Brandon Kimber and Gary Jensen and injured six others.

"Miners tend to be a very cohesive group," Nelson said. "A lot of those men were willing to risk their lives to find their workmates, and unfortunately they suffered the consequences."

After a pillar burst or tunnel collapse, miners are trained to bang on metal objects or even the rocks above them as a signal, but no communication ever came from the depths of Crandall Canyon, said Mike Dalpiaz, international vice president for the United Mine Workers of America, District 22, based in Price.

"When they drilled the first holes down at the Crandall Canyon mine and they saw no evidence of life, that was the biggest factor, I believe, that stopped them from trying to keep digging the shafts so they could get anybody down in there to help," said Steve Allred, brother of miner Kelly Allred who died in Crandall Canyon. "They were pretty well confident there wasn't anybody there alive."

Seven different bore found no signs of the miners, along with areas containing less-than-livable oxygen levels and little-to-no space left after the burst.

Along with Phillips and Allred, miners Carlos Payan, Luis Hernandez, Manuel Sanchez and Don Erickson also perished in the mine.

Though it took 17 days, Chile's miners finally communicated with rescue crews at the surface of the San Jose mine by taping a note to a drill head as it broke through into the area.

"It was encouraging," Allred said. "I could not believe that they were down there that long and still able to survive."

A section of spiral entrance ramp had collapsed and blocked the Chilean miners' exit, but it didn't destroy their work area or safety refuge — a major difference between the two disasters, Nelson said.

Shocked rescue crews immediately sent down food, water and a camera and began planning a larger hole to get the men out. More than two months later, the world watched as the miners emerged one by one.

"All miners, we're all kind of one in the same, regardless of the (mined) product," said Dalpiaz. "We're all still underground with the same inherent safety problems. Everybody was so elated for the (Chilean) miners."

Yet, even knowing the differences, the haunting question still lingers: "Why couldn't they have done that for my loved one?"

"Everyone, I'm sure, is just excited for those families, to see them reunited and know that they're in pretty good health," Gordon said. "I wish we could have had a similar thing, but the mining is different."