SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) - Search teams on Sunday recovered the body of a silver miner in Idaho trapped more than a mile underground and cut off from the outside world nine days ago by an unexplained cave-in, mine company executives said.
Conclusive word that Larry Marek, 53, had perished in the Lucky Friday Mine marked an abrupt end to a search that gripped the tiny, close-knit mining town of Mullan, on the south fork of the Coeur d'Alene River near northern Idaho's border with Montana.
As recently as Saturday, the president of Hecla Mining Co.,Phil Baker, posted a video message expressing hope that the veteran miner might have miraculously survived the April 15 mine collapse.
At that point, Hecla said its search teams had advanced most of the way through a 220-foot rescue passage they had been drilling and blasting through solid rock.
Early on Sunday, however, the company issued a statement saying Marek was presumed dead, and hours later reported that his remains had been found and brought to the surface.
"We are heartbroken to report that we now believe Larry was under the fall of ground when it occurred and is deceased," Hecla executive Melanie Hennessey said in the statement. "Words cannot express the deep sorrow we feel at the tragic loss of our friend, colleague and 30-year veteran of the mining industry."
She added that with Marek's body recovered, the company "will begin our in-depth investigation to discover how and why this happened."
Hopes that Marek might be found alive were buoyed on Tuesday when a tiny camera snaked through a bore hole into the rubble of the cave-in found a pocket of open space, and rescuers began pumping fresh air and water into the void.
But Hennessey said hopes were dashed after further probing of the fallen rock and debris determined the collapse was more extensive than first thought.
There had been no contact with Marek since the underground tunnel where he and his brother were working on April 15 suddenly gave way for unknown reasons. The brother escaped unharmed.
Mullan is one of several communities in a historic Idaho mining district known as the Silver Valley. The region is known for being prone to spontaneous ruptures of rock known as rock bursts, government studies show. A rock burst was behind the Lucky Friday's last documented fatality in 1986.
Rock bursts -- linked to geology, seismic activity and mining -- can trigger cave-ins, the greatest single hazard underground miners face and the cause of nearly half of fatal injuries, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
The Lucky Friday is one of the deepest mines in North America at 6,150 feet, and the company has been working to expand its depth to 8,000 feet.
The hard-rock mine is one of three active silver mines in the United States owned by Hecla, which was founded in the Silver Valley and is based in Coeur d'Alene.
The company bills itself as the nation's largest silver producer, with the Lucky Friday alone yielding 3.4 million ounces of silver last year.
(Written by Steve Gorman; Editing by Barbara Goldberg, Corrie MacLaggan and Peter Bohan)
Creative Commons image via flickr user crazybarefootpoet.