Monday, November 29, 1999

Colombia rescuers fight to reach miners after blast

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Rescuers fought against gas and debris to reach up to 70 miners feared dead on Friday after a blast tore through a coal mine in one of Colombia's worst mining disasters.At least 18 bodies were pulled from the wreckage on Thursday after the midnight gas explosion in northwestern Antioquia province. The death toll was expected to rise as rescuers struggled to get into the mine shift.The blast at the small San Fernando mine occurred far from the major operations run by companies such as Drummond and Glencore in the world's No. 5 coal exporter which is enjoying a boom in mining and energy investment."There is an accumulation of gas at the entrance of the mine," said Ivan Dario Vieira, a local rescue agency director. "They are ventilating it to see if they can work better."Relatives of miners gathered anxiously at a local sports hall in Amaga town, where authorities had set up a makeshift morgue as bodies wrapped in white sheets were ferried in waiting hearses. Many carried photographs of missing kin."They have to give me some sign of hope," Gladys Gallego said as she waited for a loved one outside the mine. "Until they take him out I am not going home."Accumulations of gas several times halted attempts to reach miners feared dead and trapped 6,500 feet (2,000 metres) below the surface. On Thursday rescue workers had managed to work their way down only 2,000 feet (600 meters).Rescue workers said there was little chance any of the miners would be found alive.Last year, a methane gas explosion in another Antioquia province coal mine killed eight workers and, in 2007, an explosion in Norte de Santander killed 31 miners were killed one of the country's worst mining disasters.The latest blast will not have a broad impact on the coal market because the mine is small and supplies the domestic market and some European traders, markets sources said.Colombia has benefited from the boom in energy and mining investment under President Alvaro Uribe, who sent troops out to drive back leftist rebels fighting Latin America's oldest insurgency who once controlled large parts of the country.Uribe steps down in August and his former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, is favored to succeed him in a run-off vote on Sunday. The country's commodities boom is an election issue with candidates debating how to handle an influx of mining and oil dollars.The disaster will put the spotlight on mining safety regulations in a country where the industry ranges from large deposits operated by multinationals to hundreds of small, makeshift pits that produce coal for local markets.Coal mining is dangerous even in more developed countries. Explosions and collapses are common, especially in China. In April, an explosion killed 29 miners in West Virginia in the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in more than 20 years.(Writing by Patrick Markey; editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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