Rescuers seek miners

Hope held out for 65 trapped after explosion in Mexico

February 21, 2006|By SAM ENRIQUEZ AND HECTOR TOBAR | SAM ENRIQUEZ AND HECTOR TOBAR,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SAN JUAN DE SABINAS, Mexico -- Rescue workers digging with picks and shovels raced yesterday to reach 65 miners trapped in a coal mine just outside this city in the northern Mexican state of Coahuila.

Officials at the Pasta de los Conchos mine said they hope to find survivors of the mine collapse, which was caused by an explosion early Sunday. Two air vents reaching 600 feet into the mine were working, they said.

It remained unclear whether the vent, which draws out methane gas and carbon monoxide while pumping in fresh air, had reached the shafts where the miners are trapped.

Telephone lines to the mine shafts were cut in the explosion, and no one has heard from the workers.

"We're moving forward," said Jorge Luis Montelongo, a 31-year-old miner and volunteer rescuer. "It can be done." Like the other rescuers, he emerged from the mine with soot covering his face, hard hat and knee-high rubber boots.

Dozens of relatives of the trapped workers gathered outside the mine, which is on a dry, dusty plain. The relatives built a shrine to the Virgin Mary at the mine's front gate, while a public address system blared out prayers.

"God help us and all the families here waiting," a voice leading the prayers said. "But mostly all our prayers go to the rescue crews and the trapped men."

Mining disasters are a fact of life in Coahuila, which is separated from Texas by the Rio Grande. Over the past century, 900 people have been killed in mining accidents in the state.

Many of the accidents have been caused by the presence of "firedamp," a volatile mixture of methane and other gases that occurs naturally in coal deposits. Officials suspect that firedamp caused the explosion at Pasta de los Conchos.

About 80 miners were trapped inside. Fifteen were rescued near the mine entrance moments after the explosion.

Juan Jose Galvan, 33, was one of those rescued. He told his wife, Ernestina Hiran Ruiz, that the explosion knocked him unconscious. He remembers working in the mine shaft, then awakening in a hospital, calling out the names of several co-workers who remained trapped.

Miners make $50 to $100 a week, relatives said.

"It's the best job, and it's also the hardest one," said Rafael Castaqeda, whose husband, Agustin Botello, was among the trapped miners. "My husband has worked in the mines since he was 18. Thanks to God he never had an accident. Now he's in God's hands."

Luis Chavez, director of energy and mines for Coahuila, said Mexican mines generally have a high percentage of gases because Pemex, the national oil and gas monopoly, has shown little interest in extracting natural gas in mining areas.

Mine superintendent Ruben Escudero said monitors in the mine did not register a high level of gases before the explosion. "I'm not sure what caused this," he said.

As of yesterday afternoon, after more than 36 hours, rescue workers had dug through about 1,312 feet of rubble and were about 325 feet from the spot were officials expect to find two trapped miners. Most of the workers, however, are trapped much deeper in the mine.

Canisters that provide a six-hour emergency oxygen supply are placed throughout the tunnels, officials said, and workers carry a small amount of oxygen as part of their basic equipment. That supply would have run out within hours.

The rescue work went slowly yesterday because officials feared triggering a new collapse that could trap the rescuers. Some officials said reaching the trapped miners could take as long as a week.

Sam Enriquez and Hector Tobar write for the Los Angeles Times.

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