Rescue workers chipped away at walls of debris separating them from 65 Mexican coal miners today, as family members desperate for word on their trapped relatives threatened to rush past soldiers guarding the pit.
Almost three days after a gas explosion filled tunnels with fallen rock, wood and metal, rescuers have found no sign of the workers – either dead or alive - in the Pasta de Conchos mine, about 85 miles south west of Eagle Pass, Texas.
But officials did not rule out the possibility, however slim, of finding survivors.
Coahuila state civil protection director Arturo Vilchis said he “can’t speculate on the condition of the miners”.
The lack of news added to the strain on the hundreds of weary relatives of the trapped miners. The family members have camped outside the mine in the bitter cold since Sunday’s pre-dawn explosion.
A crowd of about 600 shouted at Vilchis until he took refuge behind a line of five soldiers guarding the entrance to the Pasta de Conchos mine.
“What are you hiding?” shouted one man. “If you don’t tell us the truth we will go into the mine ourselves.”
Yadira Gallegos, whose brother-in-law is trapped in the mine, accused officials of lying.
“They said they would tell us something at three o clock, but they never came out. We want answers,” she said.
Officials at the US Mine Safety and Health Administration said they were sending a truck with specialised equipment for analysing gas samples and several mining experts to help with the rescue operation. The team should arrive at the mine site late tonight.
“MSHA and the entire mining community extend our deepest condolences whenminers are in danger,” said David Dye, the agency’s acting administrator.
Mexican officials have said the 65 men were each carrying tanks with only six hours of oxygen, though the workers may have been receiving air through ventilation shafts and oxygen tanks scattered throughout the mine.
Some family members panicked when they saw yesterday’s editions of the local newspaper La Prensa de Monclova, whose banner headline was a quote from a surviving miner: ”They are surely dead.”
But Javier de la Fuente, an engineering contractor with mine owner Grupo Mexico SA de CV, said it was too early to write the miners off.
Asked if they might still be alive, he replied: “Cn you tell me what lottery number is going to win tonight?”
Because of fears that electric or gas-powered machinery could spark more explosions, rescuers wearing gas masks and oxygen tanks have had to use picks and shovels to move tons of fallen dirt, rock, wood and metal.
They got through one wall of debris, only to encounter another about 600 yards inside the tunnel yesterday. At least two conveyer belt operators may be just beyond the wall, but most of the others were thought to be as far as one to three miles from the mine’s entrance.
The workers had been installing wooden and metal supports in four recently-dug extensions of the mine when the gas exploded at about 2.30am local time (8.30am GMT) on Sunday.
At least a dozen other workers near the entrance were able to escape with broken bones and burns.
A power cut briefly struck the ventilation system yesterday, but a back-up diesel generator immediately kicked in and kept the fans going until power was restored, de la Fuente said.
Consuelo Aguilar, a spokeswoman for the National Miners’ Union, called for an investigation into Grupo Mexico’s responsibility for the disaster.
Rebolledo said safety conditions met national and international standards, “but accidents can always happen”.
Pedro Camarillo, a national union official, said nothing unusual was found during a routine evaluation on February 7.
As well as mining coal, Grupo Mexico is the world’s third-largest copper producer, with operations in Mexico, Peru, and the US.