A video camera lowered into a mine where six workers have been missing for more than five days shows "survivable space," a federal official said, but attempts to signal the miners were met by silence.
The void found by a camera lowered into a new hole on Saturday showed an intact ceiling over 60cm of rubble mixed with water, said Richard Stickler, head of the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
"We do have a five and a half foot [1.7m] void. We have not lost the space where the miners could be located," he said.
The nearly 23cm wide hole reached the void in the early morning darkness. Rescuers quickly shut down the drill rig and their compressors -- anything that could drown out signs of life from down below -- and rapped again and again on the drill steel in an attempt to contact the miners. Trapped miners, if they can hear the signal, are trained to respond in kind with tools or rocks.
These signals, however, were met with silence.
"It was heartbreaking," said mine geologist Mike Glasson, who was on the mountain at the time. "If they're alive and well and didn't respond ... perhaps they're injured. I don't know."
"We did not lose confidence in what we are doing up there," he added, "Not one bit."
The news further disheartened the miners' relatives, who have eagerly awaited each new development only to have their faith dashed when no word comes of the fate of their loved ones.
"I think with so much time passing we are losing hope," said Tomas Hernandez, uncle of miner Luis Hernandez, 23, although he said his nephew's wife was clinging to hers. "As a wife, she has to have hope."
Stickler said that the camera encountered trouble because 38 liters of groundwater a minute were flowing down the hole into the vast space below. The water, not enough to affect any survivors below, blurred one of the camera's lenses.
Nonetheless, he said, "We found survivable space."
The camera was withdrawn so a steel casing could be inserted in the well to protect the camera from the water. Getting the casing in and the camera back down was not expected to be completed until late Saturday night, Glasson said.
A smaller hole 6.5cm wide that was drilled into the mine earlier was being used to pump oxygen into the void. Sampling of air in that hole had found oxygen levels too low for survival.
The two holes are 40m apart. The void is 570meters below the drill rigs.
The men were more than 5km inside the remote mine in this western state at the time of the thunderous collapse Monday. Efforts to reach them through the horizontal main tunnels have been slowed by fallen rock and by ground movements that require extensive installation of roof and wall supports to keep rescuers safe.
Bob Murray, head of Murray Energy Corp., co-owner of the mine, said workers clearing away mounds of rubble had progressed 200m into a 610m tunnel that could lead to the men.
"The rescue effort itself, I am very disappointed at our pace," Murray said, asserting, however, that no mistakes had been made.
The findings from the camera were announced after officials met to inform the miners' families and show them videotape from the camera.
"It's remarkable and wonderful how they are holding up," Murray said.
The brother of missing miner Don Erickson expressed frustration at the news.
"We don't know anything," Terry Erickson said. "It's just the same stuff that's on TV. I'm getting tired of hearing it."