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Grief Turns To Blame At Utah Mine

HUNTINGTON, Utah (AP) _ Dale Black's widow didn't want his funeral to turn into a showdown with the co-owner of the mine where he died, and most went along with her request to avoid confrontation.

Frustration is high with six miners trapped in the Crandall Canyon Mine _ men Black and two others died trying to rescue _ all but left for dead. But even now, when people in this mining community criticize the officials whose businesses pay their bills, they often do it in whispers.

At Tuesday's funeral, held in a campground in the shadow of the mountain mine, one man waited for Bob Murray, the mine's co-owner, to accept the thanks of one woman, and then stepped forward, his hand outstretched.

While hundreds of mourners waited in line nearby to sign a guest book, Murray reached out, expecting to shake hands.

But the man, who declined to be identified, didn't want to shake hands. He said his friend was waiting to be rescued, and he accused Murray of skimping on the rescue efforts.

He tried to pass Murray a dollar bill. ``This is just to help you out so you don't kill him,'' he said.

Murray's head snapped back as if slapped. When the man wouldn't take back the bill, Murray threw the money on the ground. ``I'll tell you what son, you need to find out about the Lord,'' Murray said.

As Murray walked away from the scene, his son picked up the dollar.

``We'll give it to the church,'' Ryan Murray said.

It was an emotional exchange with a man who had insisted that rescue of the miners and the well-being of their families was his priority since the Aug. 6 collapse. Now some families and friends are wondering if it was safe for miners to have been working there in the first place.

Critics are now openly saying the mine was a disaster waiting to happen and pointing fingers at Murray Energy Corp. and the federal government as the agents of the tragedy.

Miners' advocates have accused the Mine Safety and Health Administration in recent years of being too accommodating to the industry at the expense of safety. And they say MSHA was too quick to approve the mining plan at Crandall Canyon despite concerns that it was too dangerous for mining to continue when Murray bought the place a year ago.

``No one took the time to see that it was a recipe for disaster,'' Phil Smith, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America, said Tuesday.

In question is the decision to allow Crandall Canyon's operators to mine between two sections that had already been excavated using a mining technique that causes the roof to collapse.

In that middle section, the mine was cut like a city block, leaving pillars of coal holding up the mountain above. MSHA approved a plan allowing the operators to pull out the pillars, a practice called ``retreat mining,'' which causes deliberate, controlled roof cave-ins.

Experts think any investigation will focus on why MSHA agreed to that plan.

Those conditions are so unstable, some companies will leave behind the last of the coal rather than risk lives trying to pull additional pillars, experts have said.

In addition to the questions about structure, experts say that the operators and MSHA should have been aware that deep mines such as Crandall Canyon are also prone to ``bumps'' _ unpredictable and dangerous phenomena that occur when settling layers of earth place incalculable weight on the walls of a coal mine. That can cause pillars to fail, turning chunks of coal into deadly missiles.

Since his brother went missing in the mine, Steve Allred said he's received a tidal wave of phone calls from people who have said mine conditions were unsafe.

``They tell me that they knew people that was very, very concerned about the conditions in that mine, the bounces, everything,'' said Allred, brother of trapped miner Kerry Allred.

He said his brother had expressed some concern, but added: ``There is concern no matter which mine you are in.'' He said miners have to shut out those thoughts in order to work underground.

``If you don't, you're not going to survive as a miner,'' Allred said.

In March, a bump on the northern wall of the mine caused so much damage, operators abandoned it in favor of mining on the southern wall. MSHA approved the request to conduct retreat mining in June, although Murray has said no retreat mining has been done there since he bought the mine.

The Aug. 6 cave-in that trapped the men is believed to have been caused by a mountain bump.

Working 1,500 feet underground, the six miners might have been blasted by flying coal, or buried underneath rubble. Murray has said they might not have survived the initial cave-in.

He has insisted the collapse was caused by an earthquake, even though government seismologists say the mine cave-in itself was what caused the ground to shake.

Since then, there have been several other bumps, including another violent one last week that killed the three rescue workers, injured six others and led MSHA to call off efforts to dig underground to the six trapped miners.

Four test holes drilled into the mountain have not detected signs of life, and have shown there is little breathable air in the mine. A fifth test hole was expected to be completed Wednesday morning, but officials said they did not expect any good news. They have said the mountain is so unstable that nobody will be sent in unless there are survivors.

Experts point to that instability as they question the entire operation at Crandall Canyon.

``The plans that were developed by the company and approved by MSHA in June were obviously completely defective,'' said Jack Spadaro, former director of the National Mine Health and Safety Academy, a mine engineer and consultant who has advised the United Mine Workers of America and attorneys representing injured miners. ``It seems incomprehensible they would have approved a plan to remove barrier pillars in June.''

Murray has pushed for better mine safety, and Crandall Canyon had a better-than-average safety record, according to experts. Union officials who have battled with his Ohio-based company say his 19 mines in five states have accumulated an average safety record. Federal documents show it varies widely from mine to mine in the number of fines, citations and injuries.

Murray became the public face of the mine disaster at the start of the rescue attempts, leading media tours and promising to find the men. After the rescuers died last Thursday, he dropped from sight for several days, re-emerging Monday to meet with families and tell them their relatives are likely dead.

``Their reception to me was probably not good. But at some time, the reality must sink in, and I did it as compassionately as I possibly could,'' he said.
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