Gas Keeps Workers From Rescuing Colombian Miners

There's been a mine disaster in northwestern Colombia, and at least 70 miners were trapped deep underground. At least 16 bodies have been pulled from the scene, but efforts to reach the missing were stymied by a buildup of gas.

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In Colombia, a coal mine explosion has killed at least 16 people and left dozens trapped underground. It's the deadliest mining accident in years. From Bogota, Colombia, NPR's Juan Forero reports.

JUAN FORERO: An accumulation of gas touched off a blast in Northern Colombia. That sealed off a long access tunnel in the San Fernando mine. That left miners trapped hundreds of feet down. By last night, both the gas build up and debris from the blast had prevented rescue crews from reaching the trapped miners.

Governor Luis Ramos of Antioquia state compared the accident to April's mining disaster in West Virginia. Twenty-nine miners died there after an explosion at the Upper Big Branch Mine.

Governor LUIS RAMOS (Antioquia State, Colombia): (Spanish spoken)

FORERO: Ramos said reaching the miners would be difficult, and there's not much chance any survivors would be found. The mining minister, Hernan Martinez, said the mine lacked gas detection devices and methane ventilation pipes. Those are basic features in coal mines, where methane gas build up is a constant danger.

The accident comes just days ahead of Colombia's presidential election. It raises questions about mine safety. Mining is expanding in Colombia, the world's fifth largest exporter of coal. The San Fernando mine, though, produces mostly for domestic consumption.

Juan Forero, NPR News, Bogota.

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