(31 Oct 2018) Underneath the mountains and deserts of the U.S. West lie hundreds of thousands of abandoned mines, an underground world that can hold both serious danger and unexpected wonder.
They are a legacy of the region's prospecting past, when almost anyone could dig a mine and then walk away, with little cleanup required, when it stopped producing.
In Utah alone, the state is trying to seal more than 10,000 open mines with cinderblocks and metal grates after people have died in rock falls and all-terrain-vehicle crashes and from poisonous air over the past three decades. And just this month in Arizona, a prospector broke his left leg and ankle after plunging to the bottom of an old mine shaft. He spent nearly three days there with no food or water fending off rattlesnakes before a friend heard his cries for help.
Still, not everyone wants to see the mines closed. For years, a dedicated subculture of explorers has been slipping underground to see tunnels lined with sparkling quartz, century-old rail cars and caverns that open in the earth like buried ballrooms.
"Nobody has walked the path you're walking for 100 years," said Jeremy MacLee, who uses old mining documents and high-tech safety equipment to find and explore forgotten holes, mostly in Utah.
He also lends his expertise to searches for missing people. That's how he got to know Bill Powell, who looked for his 18-year-old son, Riley, for months before the teenager and his girlfriend were found dead in a mine shaft the outside the small town of Eureka.
The teens' families formed a close bond with MacLee and other volunteer searchers. Despite his painful memories, Bill Powell decided to see what draws his friend to those dark recesses deep in the desert.
"It's a whole different life. The underground life," said Powell, who has a gravelly voice, close-cropped gray beard and a quick smile.
On a recent day, he and MacLee joined a group of friends in front of a mountainside opening near Eureka, wearing helmets, oxygen meters and strong lights, and a carrying stash of extra batteries. Cool air blasted from the opening, cutting through the desert heat.
But the dangers of abandoned mines weigh on Utah officials' minds. There have been 11 deaths since 1982 and more than 40 injuries, including people who entered mines to explore and others who fell in by accident, according to state data. Some abandoned mines become filled with tainted water, as in the toxic 2015 spill from Colorado's Gold King mine, but most in Utah are dry.
Legally, entering a mine can be considered trespassing in Utah if it has been closed or there are signs posted outside, but prosecutions are rare. Explorers argue it's no more dangerous than outdoor sports ranging from hiking to skiing, which also claim lives in the West.
There are cases like Riley Powell and his girlfriend, Brelynne "Breezy" Otteson. Prosecutors say an enraged man killed the teenage couple after they visited his girlfriend despite his warning her not to have male visitors. He dumped their bodies in the mine shaft, where they remained for nearly three months before being discovered in March.
Similar cases have occurred in states like Wyoming, Colorado and California. Investigators also searched old mines in Utah and neighboring Nevada after the high-profile 2009 disappearance of Susan Cox Powell, though the 28-year-old Salt Lake City-area wife and mother was never found.
Find out more about AP Archive: http://www.aparchive.com/HowWeWork
You can license this story through AP Archive: http://www.aparchive.com/metadata/youtube/f9e093118de4ac31811a97ffd22eeb40