Families frantic for news of trapped miners

Relatives of 65 coal miners trapped underground for almost two days after a gas explosion grew increasingly desperate and frustrated today, as rescue workers provided no real news of their loved ones.

Officials said prospects were slim but there was still a chance of finding survivors from Sunday’s pre-dawn explosion at the Pasta de Conchos mine in northern Mexico. Crews worked through the night, tunnelling feverishly through dirt and rock.

Miners’ family members, who had been camped outside the mine for nearly two days, called for rescue workers to give them more information.

“Tell us the truth!” a man shouted through a megaphone.

Jesus de Leon, 50, whose 35-year old son is trapped underground, said the wait was unbearable.

“If the rescue workers have advanced just one more meter we need to know about it,” De Leon said. “They don’t tell us anything.”

Some relatives prayed with priests and pastors who joined them at the entrance to the mine, near the town of San Juan de Sabinas, 85 miles south west of Eagle Pass, Texas.

Women wept openly and swayed with their arms in the air and men wiped tears from their eyes.

“We are waiting for a miracle from God,” said Norma Vitela, whose trapped husband, Jose Angel Guzman, had previously told her of problems with gas in the mine. She said the father of four, who earned about £43 a week, could not afford to quit.

Federal labour secretary Francisco Salazar arrived at the mine early today and assured relatives that the government was using all available resources to rescue survivors.

The trapped men had carried only six hours of oxygen, but officials said they believed a ventilation system that uses huge fans to pump in fresh air and suck out dangerous gases was still working. Even so, they could not be certain the precious oxygen was arriving to where the miners were trapped.

Juan Rebolledo, vice president of international affairs for mine owner Grupo Mexico, said oxygen tanks were scattered throughout the mine, but it was impossible to know if the trapped miners had access to any of them.

More than 40 hours of digging had pushed rescue teams 500 yards into the mine, about 55 yards from where two conveyor-belt operators were believed to be trapped, mine administrator Ruben Escudero said.

But others were thought to be trapped as far as one to three miles from the mine’s entrance.

Escudero said rescuers were wearing oxygen masks and avoided using electric or gas-powered machinery because of the presence of explosive gases. Doctors were on the site to examine rescue workers as they emerged from their eight-hour shifts in the tunnels.

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.

Sergio Robles, director of emergency services for Coahuila state, said the mine was better reinforced after 400 meters, giving rescuers hope that they might be able to advance more quickly. He said if there were survivors, they could very well be trying to dig their way out.

Meanwhile, family members prepared for a second night outside the pit, huddling near bonfires and wrapped in blankets to protect against the bitter cold. Some pitched tents, while others slept on small cots or upright in plastic chairs.

“The only thing we want is information and all they tell us is that they don’t know,” said a sobbing Yadira Gallegos, whose 28-year-old brother-in-law, Jesus Martinez, was just finishing his first week at the mine.

The explosion happened at around 2.30am local time (8.30am Irish time) on Sunday as the miners were in the middle of their overnight shift.

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.

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