Landslide at Colombia gold mine kills at least 27

Friday, November 23, 2001

BOGOTA, Colombia -- Torrents of mud engulfed a group of gold miners digging at a condemned strip mine in western Colombia on Thursday. At least 27 people were confirmed dead and dozens were missing.

The victims were said to be poor people who ignored government warnings that erosion had made the mine unsafe. It was not immediately clear whether the digging, recent heavy rains -- or both -- were to blame for the accident.

For hours after the morning landslide in Filadelfia, a small town 120 west of Bogota, rescuers shoveled furiously in hopes of finding somebody alive. So far, they have uncovered only bodies.

Officials in Caldas state said 27 bodies had been found, but they expected that number to rise as the searchers worked deeper into the mud. Twenty miners were reported injured and taken to hospitals.

Emergency crews from the Red Cross and the civil defense forces were using heavy machinery to remove the thick mud spread over the site.

Julian Arboleda, a top aide to Caldas governor Luis Alfonso Arias, said initial estimates are that the landslide may have trapped as many as 60 people including those already confirmed dead.

Survivors said the earth crashed down without warning on a group of about 200 people trying to scrape gold from the well-worn hillside.

Many workers managed to scramble out of the way or crawl out from beneath the mud. Others were not so lucky.

"Suddenly the hill came down upon us and we had no time to do anything," recalled miner Jairo Bedoya, interviewed on local Caracol Radio from his hospital bed. "My feet were trapped between rocks, but I managed to free myself, however other friends remained buried."

"There were a lot of people with me, more than 200, and I believe that at least 60 were trapped," Bedoya added

Mine condemned

According to the governor's aide, officials ordered the mine closed several months ago. But residents thrown out of work by Colombia's economic downturn took the risk of working there anyway, Arboleda said.

Landslides triggered by rains are Colombia's most common natural disaster, killing dozens of people annually. Thursday's accident was the worst such tragedy in recent years.

According to the government's disaster relief agency, nearly 200 people died in a poor neighborhood in the city of Medellin when a 1987 landslide buried their houses.

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