SUTATAUSA (Colombia), March 16 — Rescuers and miners raced against the clock Wednesday to save ten workers trapped in a coal mine in central Colombia after an explosion killed at least 11.
With oxygen fast running out, family members waited outside the mine wrapped in woollen ponchos against the cold, desperate for news of their loved ones.
Separated from the accident site by a barbed wire barricade, they watched as a machine pumped water out of a mine shaft.
President Gustavo Petro called it “an unfortunate tragedy,” in a Twitter message.
“We are making every effort with the Cundinamarca regional government to rescue the trapped people alive,” the president said, offering “a hug of solidarity to the victims and their families.”
The ANM national mining agency said on Twitter Wednesday morning that two workers had been rescued from the mine at Sutatausa.
“We regret what happened and we stand in solidarity with the families of those affected,” the ANM added.
Governor Nicolas Garcia of Cundinamarca department told Blu Radio more than 100 rescuers were involved in the search for ten missing miners, who were trapped some 900 meters (2,950 feet) underground.
“Every minute that passes means less oxygen,” he said, adding the operation was a “difficult” one.
The blast happened when accumulated gases in the mine were ignited by a spark from a worker’s tool late Tuesday, Garcia said.
Survivor Joselito Rodriguez, 33, told AFP by telephone that he felt a “tremor” while working and then, “I felt I was suffocating, and could not see anything.”
“Thank God we got out safely, but others are dead,” he said shortly after leaving the hospital where he received treatment for his lungs.
Workers from other mines also rushed to the scene with their yellow hard hats and flashlights to join the rescue effort led by firefighters and search and rescue professionals.
The explosion happened at a legal coal mine linked underground to five others.
Oil and coal are the main exports of Colombia, where mining accidents are frequent, especially at illegal digs in Cundinamarca and other departments in the country’s centre and northeast.
Colombia registered more than 1,260 mining accidents from 2011 to May 2022, for an average annual toll of 103 deaths, according to official data.
At least 130,000 people make a legal living from mining in Colombia.
But unions consistently denounce poor working conditions, with a lack of protective gear and long working hours.
In August, nine miners were rescued from a collapsed illegal coal mine in the same department.
And in June, 15 people died at a mine in the municipality of Zulia, near the border with Venezuela, also due to an explosion of accumulated gases.
The country is a major coal producer for the global market.
According to the ministry of mines and energy, in 2020, Colombia had 53 per cent of proven coal reserves in Latin America and 0.6 per cent of reserves in the world.
Petro, who became president in August, has referred to coal as “poison” and vowed to transfer mining jobs to the agriculture, clean energy and tourism sectors.
Illegal mining, along with drug trafficking, is also a major source of income for Colombia’s armed groups that have waged a nearly six-decade conflict among each other and against security forces. — AFP