Seismic activity "totally shut down" efforts to reach six miners trapped below ground and wiped out all the work done in the past day, a mine executive said Tuesday.
"We are back to Square One underground," said Robert Murray, chairman of Murray Energy Corp., owner of the Crandall Canyon mine.
Still, "we should know within 48 to 72 hours the status of those trapped miners," Murray said.
Rescue crews are drilling two holes into the mountain in an effort to communicate with the miners - provided they are still alive.
Unstable conditions below ground have thwarted rescuers' efforts to break through to the miners, who have been trapped 1,500 feet below the surface for nearly two days, Murray said.
The seismic activity and other factors "have totally shut down our rescue efforts underground," he said.
"There is absolutely no way that, through our underground rescue effort, we can reach the vicinity of the trapped miners for at least one week," Murray said.
Flashes of anger
Murray has insisted the cave-in was caused by an earthquake. But government seismologists have said the pattern of ground-shaking picked up by their instruments around the time of the accident Monday appeared to have been caused not by an earthquake, but by the cave-in itself.
Murray lashed out at the news media for suggesting his men were conducting "retreat mining," a method in which miners pull down the last standing pillars of coal and let the roof fall in.
"This was caused by an earthquake, not something that Murray Energy ... did or our employees did or our management did," Murray said, his voice often rising in anger. "It was a natural disaster. An earthquake. And I'm going to prove it to you."
However, government seismologists said the pattern of ground shaking picked up by their instruments around the time of the accident Monday appeared to have been caused not by an earthquake, but by the cave-in. Mine collapses have a seismic signature distinct from earthquakes because they tend to occur at shallower depths and at different frequencies.
And Amy Louviere, a spokeswoman for the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration in Washington, said the men at the Genwal mine were, in fact, conducting retreat mining. However, Louviere said that exactly what the miners were doing, and whether that led to the collapse, can only be answered after a full investigation.
Retreat mining has been blamed for 13 deaths since 2000, and the government requires mining companies to submit a roof control plan before beginning such mining. Such a plan details how and when the pillars will be cut and in what order.
Genwal had submitted such a plan, and received approval in 2006, Louviere said.
"As long as they abide by that plan, it can be a very safe form of mining," she said.
More than a day and a half after the cave-in, rescuers were unable to say whether the men were dead or alive, and had not heard any pounding from their hammers, as miners are trained to do when they get trapped.
Murray said if the men were not killed by the cave-in itself, he believed there was enough air and water for them to survive for days. But the government's chief mine inspector in the West was not as confident.
"We're hoping there's air down there. We have no way of knowing that," said Al Davis of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
Murray said 30 pieces of heavy mining equipment were in place and 134 people were dedicated to the rescue.
"Progress has been too slow, too slow," Murray said.
The head of MSHA, Richard Stickler, said "ongoing seismic activity, bumps, movements of the mountain" had forced rescuers to move slowly.
Four miners escaped, but they were not in the same area as their trapped colleagues, according to Murray.
Little was known about the six miners; only one has been identified. The Mexican Consulate in Salt Lake City said three of the men are Mexican citizens.