Rescuers find void behind rubble at Idaho mine -

Rescuers find void behind rubble at Idaho mine

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Map locates Mullan, Idaho, where a silver mine has collapsed By J. Bell Map locates Mullan, Idaho, where a silver mine has collapsed By J. Bell

BOISE, Idaho (AP) -- A pocket of open space behind tons of collapsed rock and debris has added some optimism to the search for a missing silver miner, despite dangerous conditions that are forcing rescuers to take a much longer route toward where he is trapped.

   Workers who have been digging through the boulders, twisted wires and broken concrete that collapsed inside the Lucky Friday Mine finished drilling a 2-inch-wide, 180-foot-long hole from another tunnel Tuesday, Hecla Mining Co. said in a written statement. The view from a borehole camera confirmed there is a void in the area where Larry "Pete" Marek had been working, but the company reported no sign of the 53-year-old.
   "The importance here is that they were able to find a void, which means there's space, there's open space, which is encouraging," said Stephany Bales, a Hecla spokeswoman.
   Since Friday's cave-in, rescue teams had been using a remote-controlled digging machine called a mucker to advance 39 feet into the collapsed area, which is estimated to be as long as 75 feet. But unstable conditions weren't allowing workers to safely shore up that tunnel's walls, so officials had to come up with a new plan.
   They started digging from a safer set-off point that will force them to blast through 220 feet of rock with a jumbo drill, while buttressing the newly exposed ground to keep it from collapsing, too. They had advanced through about 24 feet in 24 hours, although the pace could accelerate, Bales said Tuesday night.
   "We'll see how they do now that they're in progress, they're under way and moving forward at this point," she said.
   Workers also were getting ready to start burrowing toward the collapsed area from another point about 180 feet away.
   The process of shoring up the treacherous caved-in tunnel had been consuming valuable time, with supports placed in only about 4 more feet of tunnel over a span of about 12 hours. Rescuers on Monday more than doubled their estimate on the volume of the collapse: from 10 feet high to 25 feet high.
   Officials hoped drilling the 2-inch hole would find an open area that could have provided Marek refuge behind the cave-in, and it also would allow fresh air to get in.
   Besides the 180-foot-long hole completed Tuesday, workers also bored a 46-foot-long hole through the collapsed tunnel's rubble that gave them more information about the voids within the obstructed passageway.
   Bales said she hoped to have more details Wednesday about what the rescuers, who were toiling more than a mile underground for 12 hours at a time, were seeing.
   It's unclear if Marek, a 12-year Hecla employee, had communication equipment at the time of the accident. It could have been left in a vehicle he was using at the time. He likely had water, his lunch pail and protective equipment with him.
   Marek and his brother, Mike Marek, another mine worker, had just finished watering down blasted-out rock and ore in existing mining areas when the collapse occurred about 75 feet from the end of the 6,150-foot deep tunnel, according to the Hecla.
   They had been working at roughly opposite ends of the stope, or active mining area, when the collapse occurred, and Mike Marek was able to escape.
   The family has not commented. Federal officials said many of the family's members work at the mine.
   All mining activity has been halted for the rescue effort, Hecla said. Officials said they will focus on how the collapse occurred once the rescue is complete.
   Hecla describes itself as the oldest U.S.-based precious metals mining company in North America and the largest silver producer in the U.S. The Coeur d'Alene company currently produces silver from two mines, Greens Creek and Lucky Friday, which has been operational since 1942.
   Silver prices have soared about 38 percent this year, and Hecla is spending $200 million to increase its production of the metal by about 60 percent. The upgrades will extend the life of the Lucky Friday mine beyond 2030.
   Hecla appears to have a good record of health and safety at Lucky Friday.
   The mine tucked into the forested mountains of the Idaho Panhandle's Silver Valley has reported no fatalities dating back to 2000, according to a Mine Safety and Health Administration database. The federal regulator has cited the mine for violations but none in the last year specifically tied to the kind of accident that occurred Friday.
   Associated Press writer Joseph Altman in Phoenix contributed to this report.
   (Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
   APTV 04-20-11 0423CDT

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