- The Washington Times - Monday, February 20, 2006

SAN JUAN DE SABINAS, Mexico — Chances of survival dimmed yesterday for 65 Mexican miners trapped underground by a blast at a coal mine, where workers wielding only picks and shovels struggled to reach the men.

A rescue team got about 110 yards from where two men had been working on a conveyor belt when the gas explosion occurred Sunday, but poor ventilation and the risk of falling rocks hampered efforts to save them. Rescuers were using only hand tools for fear of sparking another blast.

Priests and pastors above led hundreds of the miners’ friends and relatives in prayer for the men trapped at the Pasta de Conchos mine near the town of San Juan de Sabinas, 85 miles southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas.

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

The trapped men had carried only six hours of oxygen, but officials said they thought a ventilation system that uses huge fans to pump in fresh air and suck out dangerous gases was still working.

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 whether the trapped miners had access to any of them.

Sergio Robles, director of emergency services for Coahuila state, said no contact had been made with any of the miners, but unconfirmed rumors swirled that rescuers had heard knocking in the mine.

Explosive methane gas underground made the rescue dangerous, and one worker said it could take days to reach most of the trapped.

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.

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.

Mr. Rebolledo said safety conditions met Mexican government requirements as well as international standards, “but accidents can always happen.”

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, 12 persons died in an accident at a mine near Barroteran.

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