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Rescue workers desperately trying to free 65 workers trapped in Mexican coal mine

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

SAN JUAN DE SABINAS, Mexico -- They waited all night and throughout the morning, huddled under blankets and around bonfires in a patch of rough, windblown desert.

But as the sun came out and the hours crawled by Monday, the family members, friends and neighbors of 65 trapped coal miners started to lose hope.

Men who had stood stoically wiped away tears, while women openly wept, clinging to one another for support near the entrance of the Pasta de Conchos mine outside the town of San Juan de Sabinas, 85 miles southwest of the U.S. border at Eagle Pass, Texas.

"We are waiting for a miracle from God," said Norma Vitela, whose trapped husband, Jose Angel Guzman, had previously told her of problems with gas in the mine. She said the father of four, who earns $75 a week, could not afford to quit.

Rescue workers using picks, shovels and their hands tunneled feverishly through dirt, wood, metal and rock in an attempt to reach the miners, who were trapped by a gas explosion 600 feet underground early Sunday.

Officials said that while it was unlikely the miners were still alive, there was still a chance of finding survivors.

The trapped men had carried only six hours of oxygen, but officials said they believed a ventilation system that uses huge fans to pump in fresh air and suck out dangerous gases was still working. Even so, they could not be certain the oxygen was arriving to where the miners were trapped.

Juan Rebolledo, vice president of international affairs for mine owner Grupo Mexico, said oxygen tanks were scattered throughout the site, but it was impossible to know if the trapped miners had access to any of them.

More than 35 hours of digging had pushed rescue teams 400 yards into the mine, about 100 yards from where two conveyor belt operators were believed to be trapped, said Sergio Robles, director of emergency services for Coahuila state.

But others were thought to be trapped as far as one to three miles from the mine's entrance.

Robles said rescuers avoided using electric or gas-powered machinery because of the presence of explosive gases. Medical doctors were on the site to examine rescue workers as they emerged from their eight-hour shifts in the tunnels.

At least a dozen workers who were near the entrance at the time of the explosion were able to escape. They were treated for broken bones and burns.

Asked whether he believed there were more survivors, Robles said: "It would be difficult because of the presence of gas. But we are holding out hope of finding someone alive."

President Vicente Fox's chief spokesman, Ruben Aguilar, said Monday that the government "has a lot of hope that everyone will get out alive."

Robles said the roof of the mine was better reinforced after 400 meters, giving rescuers hope that they might be able to advance more quickly. He said if there were survivors, they could very well be trying to dig their way out from the other side.

Worried family members held an all-night vigil at the site, huddling near bonfires and wrapped in blankets to protect against the bitter cold. Some pitched tents, while others slept on small cots or upright in plastic chairs.

After the sun rose, entire families with children in tow huddled outside the mine's gates to wait for the latest news.

"The only thing we want is information and all they tell us is that they don't know," said a sobbing Yadira Gallegos, whose 28-year-old brother-in-law, Jesus Martinez, was just finishing his first week at the mine.

"What we want is for them to tell us what is happening and if they have advanced or not," said Francisco Ordonez, 41, whose 23-year-old brother, Jose Alfredo Ordonez, and a cousin were still trapped in the mine. "People are starting to get desperate."

Catholic priests and Protestant ministers used microphones to lead the crowd of approximately 300 people in prayer.

"We are going to form one single community and ask the Lord to use his hand to give us a miracle and give life to our trapped brothers," said Protestant minister Samuel Vasquez, his voice breaking as he prayed.

Entire families, with children in tow, swayed to the words of Vasquez and other religious leaders, throwing their arms in the air and singing or moaning.

The explosion occurred around 2:30 a.m. Sunday as the miners were in the middle of their overnight shift.

Consuelo Aguilar, a spokeswoman for the National Miners' Union, said there had been concern over safety conditions in Grupo Mexico mines. She called for an investigation into the cause of the accident and the responsibility of company officials.

Rebolledo said safety conditions met Mexican government requirements as well as international standards "but accidents can always happen."

He said the union had raised no major disagreements over safety in annual meetings with the company. Mine administrator Ruben Escudero denied any company negligence, saying, "These mines can't operate if they don't meet the established minimum requirements."

Pedro Camarillo, a federal labor official unrelated to Olivia Camarillo, said officials found nothing unusual during a routine evaluation Feb. 7.

As well as mining coal, Grupo Mexico is the world's third-largest copper producer, with operations in Mexico, Peru, and the United States.

Coahuila's worst modern mining disaster occurred in 1969, when more than 153 miners were killed in a pit at the village of Barroteran. In 2001, another 12 people died in an accident at a mine near Barroteran.


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