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70 miners feared dead in mine explosion

world Updated: Jun 18, 2010 08:52 IST
San Fernando mine

About 70 miners were feared dead in a Colombian coal mine after a fiery explosion ripped through underground shafts overnight during a change of shifts, authorities said.

Dozens of relatives gathered outside, anxious for news of missing loved ones.

Only a single miner was found alive, with burns on 30 percent of his body, Civil Defense chief Juan Carlos Posada said.

The official said the deaths of 17 miners had been confirmed, and 11 bodies identified and removed from the site near the city of Medellin.

"It's difficult for there to be survivors, because the explosion produced very high temperatures," Posada told AFP, adding that the bodies recovered so far had been burned.

A buildup of toxic gases hampered search and rescue efforts. A team entered the mine last afternoon and were able to make it 180 meters inside, but the search was suspended at 5:30 pm local time to allow gas levels to dissipate, officials said.

At least 72 men were in the mine when the explosion hit during an 11 pm (local time) shift change Wednesday, apparently as a result of a gas buildup, officials said.

The force of the blast caused cave-ins in parts of the mine, one of the largest in Colombian's northwestern coal-producing region. Five people were killed in 2008 when the mine flooded.

Grief-stricken family members were kept at a distance from the mine by authorities for security reasons. Several hearses were parked nearby.

Liliana Aguirre, a 25-year-old housewife with a seven-year-old boy whose father was missing, anxiously waited news.

"I have been here since the morning. All they have told me is that I have to wait," she said.

President Alvaro Uribe expressed his condolences over the disaster, saying he was "very sad... for the people trapped there. It's a very difficult fate."

He said he had asked for an immediate report "on safety conditions at the mine, whether it was up to date in meeting its requirements, if it had accident and professional risk insurance."