Utah Mine Disaster: Digging For Life

John Blackstone is a CBS News correspondent based in San Francisco.
It's almost too beautiful here to be the scene of a mine disaster. The rescue command center where we spend our days and nights sits just outside the mine entrance in a steep canyon. Rugged sandstone cliffs rise all around.

Just behind the media encampment of satellite trucks and RVs Huntington Creek rushes past. There's plenty of white water as it bubbles over and around huge boulders. It's the kind of river it would be lovely to spend a few days camping beside, throwing out a fishing line now and then.

But its hard to appreciate the beauty when you think of the urgent and frightening work going on far beneath this mountain. Around the clock more than a 130 miners are digging out a tunnel filled top to bottom with coal. Somewhere far back in that tunnel they hope to find six miners waiting.

The entrance to the Crandall Canyon Mine doesn't go down, it goes straight into the mountainside. When geologic forces pushed up the mountains here on the Wasatch Plateau, coal seams were exposed along with the different strata of sandstone and shale. So the miners dig horizontally into the coal, going far back into the mountain. Where the miners are trapped is almost four miles into the mountain. At that point almost 2000 feet of rock rests on top of the mine.

As the miners here explained it to me, it's the weight of the mountain on top of the mine that made the mine's walls buckle and explode blocking the tunnels with tons of coal. People who live here understand the geology and they understand the danger of coal mining. There aren't just miners here, there are mining families. Sons follow their fathers into the mines. Brothers and cousins go together. And as the wife of one coal miner here told me, they do it so the rest of us can run our TVs and microwaves, dishwashers and computers.

Maybe she's right. In this canyon of strikingly beautiful mountains and cliffs there is one designated "scenic lookout" on the road to the mine. The view is not of the canyon and the descriptive plaques have nothing to do with the natural surroundings. The scenic lookout looks out on a huge electric power plant fired by coal from the nearby mines. The plaques describe the plant and how coal is used to make electricity. Then it notes that much of the power produced here at the Huntington Canyon Power Plant goes to California. That's where I live.

Well before dawn on Monday morning I had to be at the command center to file a live report for "The Early Show." I didn't mind being up in the middle of the night this time because this is the night when the Perseid meteor shower is visible. In a place of complete darkness its possible to see hundreds of shooting stars. So on our way to the command center we stopped along the road a little before 4am. We were grateful for the complete darkness and the meteors were impressive. But then I thought of the much more complete darkness deep inside the coal mine where there are no stars overhead. Amid so much beauty it all seems even more tragic.

  • John Blackstone

    From his base in San Francisco, CBS News correspondent John Blackstone covers breaking stories throughout the West. That often means he is on the scene of wildfires, earthquakes, floods, hurricanes and rumbling volcanoes. He also reports on the high-tech industry in Silicon Valley and on social and economic trends that frequently begin in the West.