AMAGA, Colombia (Reuters) - More than 70 Colombian miners were feared dead on Thursday after they were trapped by an explosion that ripped through a coal mine in what could become one of the Andean country’s worst mining disasters.
At least 18 bodies were pulled from the wreckage after the midnight gas explosion in north-western Antioquia province. The death toll was expected to rise steadily as rescuers struggled against gas and debris to reach into the mine shift.
The blast at the small underground San Fernando mine occurred far from the major operations run by companies such as Drummond and Glencore near the Caribbean coast of the world’s No. 5 coal exporter, which has output of about 70 million tonnes a year and is enjoying a boom in investment.
In the town of Amaga near the destroyed mine, relatives sobbed and hugged each other and anxiously pressed rescue workers for news as bodies wrapped in white sheets were carried from the wreckage to waiting hearses.
“They have to give me some sign of hope,” Gladys Gallego said as she waited for a loved one outside the mine. “Until they take him out I am not going home.”
Luz Amanda Pulido, a disaster official, said there was little chance any miners would be pulled out alive after the blast, which President Alvaro Uribe called a “huge disaster.”
“We’ve recovered 18 bodies and the rescue is difficult because the mine is still leaking a lot of gas,” rescue agency director Ivan Dario Viera told Reuters by telephone. “The operation could take four or five days minimum,”
A new accumulation of gas temporarily halted attempts to reach miners trapped 6,500 feet (2,000 metres) below the surface and rescue workers had only managed to work their way down 2,000 feet (600 meters) so far.
Five miners died in the same mine during a flood two years ago, local media reported. Last year, a methane gas explosion in another Antioquia province coal mine killed eight workers and, in 2007, 31 miners were killed in an explosion in Norte de Santander in one of the country’s worst mining disasters.
The blast at the small mine, while one of the worst in Colombia’s history, will not have a broad market impact because the mine is tiny and supplies the domestic market and some European traders, markets sources said.
San Fernando mine produces 240,000 tonnes a year of thermal coal, according to mines and energy officials.
Just as news of the explosion was breaking, workers at Glencore’s La Jagua’s coal mine in Cesar province went on strike over conditions after failing to reach an agreement with the company, a union said.
Colombia has enjoyed a boom in energy and mining investment under Uribe, who sent troops out to drive back leftist rebels who once controlled large parts of the country and targeted oil pipelines as part of Latin America’s oldest insurgency.
Uribe steps down in August and his former defence minister, Juan Manuel Santos, is favoured to succeed him in a run-off vote on Sunday. The country’s commodities boom is an election issue with candidates debating how to handle an influx of mining and oil dollars.
The San Fernando disaster also could highlight mining safety regulations in a country where the industry ranges from large deposits operated by multinationals to hundreds of small, makeshift pits that produce coal for local markets.
Coal mining is a dangerous business even in more developed countries. Explosions and collapses are common, especially in China. In April this year, an explosion killed 29 miners in West Virginia in the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in more than two decades.
Most of Colombia’s thermal coal exports are shipped from the ports on the Caribbean, making Europe, the United States and Latin America the most logical markets.
The bulk of thermal coal exports go to Europe, where Colombian coal has been consumed for many years by power generators who prize this coal for its high energy and low sulphur content.
Key benchmark delivered Europe coal prices were barely changed from Wednesday’s levels despite a mine blast and the strike at the Glencore unit.
August delivery DES ARA physical coal cargoes were quoted at $94.00-$96.50 a tonne on Thursday afternoon, up around 25 cents from the previous day.
Additional reporting by Nelson Bocanegra and Luis Jaime Acosta in Bogota and Jackie Cowhig in London; Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Doina Chiacu and Bill Trott