Seismologist made first 911 call after mine collapse, even before miners called ambulance

By Jennifer Dobner and Chelsea J. Carter
3:10 p.m. August 27, 2007
HUNTINGTON, Utah – A seismologist who detected ground tremors was the first to notify authorities of the cave-in that trapped six miners, even before mine officials called for an ambulance, according to 911 recordings.

University of Utah seismologist Walter Arabasz made his call about a potential problem at the Crandall Canyon mine early on Aug. 6, four minutes before mine officials made their call.

The 911 tapes obtained Monday by The Associated Press showed that from the earliest moments scientists suspected the shaking came from a mine collapse, not a natural earthquake, as mine co-owner Bob Murray has maintained throughout the ordeal that has entered its fourth week.

“Just from the general character of the seismic event, it looks like it might be a coal-mining event,” Arabasz said on the tapes.

Also Monday, rescuers drilled a seventh hole into the mine in another long-shot effort to locate the men. In addition, crews were attempting to send a robotic camera down one of the holes drilled earlier.

The first 911 call came at 3:47 a.m. from Arabasz in Salt Lake City, 120 miles north of the mine. At 3:51 a.m., a mine employee called for an ambulance.

“We had a big cave-in up here, and we are probably gonna need an ambulance. We're not for sure yet because we haven't heard from anybody in the section,” a voice identifying himself as Mark Toomer told a 911 dispatcher. “But we're mostly likely going to need one up here.”

Arabasz told the dispatcher the seismic event registered as 4.0 magnitude at 2:48 a.m., and it was 3.1 miles west-southwest of the mine entrance. The severity of the event was later revised to 3.9 magnitude.

The six miners have not been heard from since the cave-in, which filled a mine shaft with rock and coal in the area where the men were working. No one knows whether the men survived the collapse.

Mine officials and federal regulators have worked unsuccessfully to locate the miners, drilling a half-dozen vertical holes into the mountain in hopes of finding signs of life.

Horizontal tunneling through the tons of debris inside was halted Aug. 16 after a second cave-in killed three rescuers, including a federal safety inspector, and injured six others.

It was unclear when drilling of the seventh hole would be finished. If the camera works, images were expected later Monday.

The camera is similar to one used to search the wreckage of the World Trade Center after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City. It can take images from about 50 feet away with the help of a 200-watt light. It can travel 1,000 feet and has some ability to move around the rubble.

It was not known for certain if the camera would fit into the narrow hole or move past rock and other debris before gaining access to the mine.

Also Monday, the state's new Mine Safety Commission met for the first time. Gov. Jon Huntsman told the panel that he wanted members to determine whether Utah should take over safety regulation of the state's 13 coal mines. A report is expected in the fall.

Utah surrendered oversight of mine safety in 1977 to the federal government. At the time, Utah had only three safety inspectors for all its coal and hard-metal mines, said Democratic state Sen. Mike Dmitrich, a member of Huntsman's panel.

In the nation's capital, the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee asked the mine's operator for a host of documents about safety conditions. Rep. George Miller, a California Democrat, also asked Labor Secretary Elaine Chao for records relating to the Mine Safety and Health Administration's oversight of the mine.

In the Senate, three Republicans, including Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, asked the Labor Department to investigate MSHA's oversight of the mine.