- Associated Press - Thursday, June 17, 2010

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) — A coal mine explosion in northwestern Colombia killed at least 16 miners and left dozens trapped more than 10 hours later, President Alvaro Uribe said Thursday.

The Wednesday-night explosion at the San Fernando mine, believed to have been caused by a buildup of methane gas, collapsed part of an access tunnel that is more than a mile long and drops to a depth of 500 feet, said provincial disaster coordinator John Rendon.

“It’s very sad news,” Mr. Uribe said in a statement, adding that the predicament of the trapped miners is “a very difficult fate.”

Two injured miners managed to escape from the mine in Amaga, a town located just south of Medellin, capital of Mr. Uribe’s home state of Antioquia, Mr. Rendon said.

An estimated 70 to 80 workers were in the mine at the time of the explosion “because, by chance, it happened during a shift change,” said Gen. Alberto Mejia, commander of the army’s Medellin-based 4th Brigade. A 22-man army special forces rescue team was being sent to the mine to help.

At least 100 rescue workers were at the scene, provincial Red Cross director Beatriz Delgado said.

The director of Colombia’s state mining institute, Mario Ballesteros, said that the mine passed a routine annual safety check just last month.

In order to prevent the accumulation of methane gas, a common occurrence in coal mines, ventilation systems equipped with sensors are placed in mining shafts. If the San Fernando mine passed the safety inspection, it is likely to have had such a system, Mr. Ballesteros said.

The owner of the mine, Carbones San Fernando, did not immediately comment.

At least nine workers were killed in the same mine last August.

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