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Hopes For Survival of Trapped Mexican Miners Becomes Slim

By James C. Mckinley Jr.


Hope of rescuing 65 coal miners trapped underground here began to fade Monday afternoon as mine officials reported that they had not yet been able to excavate the collapsed tunnels leading to the men.

The miners were sealed in a pitch black, airless hell at 2:30 a.m. Sunday when built-up methane gas exploded, causing the three main tunnels leading underground to collapse. By late afternoon Monday, rescuers had tunneled through about 400 yards of rubble but still had not broken through.

Gov. Humberto Moreira Valdes of Coahuila State, where the mine is situated, said the trapped men were believed to be in three groups about 150 yards below ground. The tunnels leading down to them, however, are sloped and are more than a mile and a half long.

“There’s blockage from the explosion that’s impeding passage into the mine,” the governor said Monday morning. “We don’t know how far we have to go to eliminate that blockage.”

The miners were equipped with six hours of oxygen in small tanks on their belts, and mine officials said they were pumping air into ventilation shafts, but it remained unclear whether any of that oxygen had reached the trapped men.

Hundreds of family members of the trapped men kept a desperate vigil outside the gate to the coal mine, known as Unidad Pasta de Conchos No. 8. “It’s hard, it’s exhausting,” said Juanita Sanchez, 43, whose brother-in-law Margarito Cruz, 40, was buried below. “As long as they don’t carry them out dead, we have to hope they are alive.”

Several family members said the miners, who earn about $50 a week, had complained to them in recent weeks about excess methane gas, poor ventilation, crumbling walls and weak tunnel supports. “This is not as safe as the other mines,” said Jorge Alberto Martinez, a 24-year-old miner whose father, Julian, 42, was trapped in the mine. The son, who also worked in the mine until five months ago, said: “They use posts and beams here instead of steel arches. The ventilation is too little. When there is gas you can feel your ears whine.”

State officials and the owners of the mine said it had passed an inspection earlier this month with 47 minor infractions, all of which, they contended, had been fixed.

Ruben Escudero, the manager of Industrial Minera Mexico, which owns the mine, said the levels of methane gas in the shafts were less than 1 percent at the time of the explosion. The mine’s machinery is designed to shut off automatically if the level exceeds that threshold, he said.

Escudero said: “Like all operations, it is subject to human risk and, of course, to mechanical breakdowns, which we go about fixing as they arise. Nothing is perfect.”

But many miners and miners’ wives said something had obviously gone horribly wrong with that system.

By 4:30 p.m., tempers were growing short in the crowd of family members. Then Sergio Robles Garza, the state director of civil protection, said the rescue workers had changed their tactics, trying to open an air shaft, which was the least badly collapsed of three tunnels leading into the mine.