A relative of one of the miners trapped
Omar Torres  /  AFP - Getty Images
A relative of one of the miners trapped in the Pasta de Conchos mine is assisted by a member of the International Red Cross on Thursday near San Juan de Sabinas, Mexico.
updated 2/23/2006 1:38:04 PM ET 2006-02-23T18:38:04

Rescuers broke through walls of debris Thursday, meeting high levels of methane gas but finding no sign of the first two of 65 trapped Mexican miners in the area where they believed they were trapped. Officials said the toxic gas makes it increasingly unlikely that anyone will be found alive.

They stopped short of saying they thought the miners were dead, however.

"The air as the rescue advances is increasingly lacking in oxygen and more laden with methane, which makes it less breathable," said federal Labor Secretary Francisco Salazar.

"The conditions are becoming increasingly adverse," added Ruben Escudero, administrator of the Pasta de Conchos mine. "It is grave, and being realistic, we think the situation is difficult."

He declined to elaborate.

Escudero told a news conference that rescuers had advanced 740 yards inside the mine, more than 110 yards beyond where two conveyor belt operators were believed to be trapped.

Officials earlier said that the condition of the two men might give a hint about the fate of the other workers.

No sign of belt operators
But Escudero said there was no sign of them, which he said meant they either had been buried under debris, or were in a different part of the mine. He refused to speculate what he thought had happened.

After four days of digging through hundreds of tons of rubble, weary rescue workers insisted they would not give up the search.

"We are not going to abandon our comrades, dead or alive," said Alvaro Cortes, his face lined with exhaustion and blackened with coal as he left the mine early Thursday following an overnight rescue shift.

"We all want to find them and end this episode," said Ruben Quintero, who emerged from the tunnel late Wednesday night. Quintero acknowledged that the rescuers had found "no signs of life."

Mine owners and government officials have repeatedly refused to rule out the possibility that there are survivors more than four days after Sunday's pre-dawn gas explosion.

Escudero said 72 workers were working around the clock to remove 600 to 800 tons of debris. Fresh air was being pumped to an area of the mine that had been cleared with the hope that rescuers could shed their heavy oxygen tanks and work faster.

Mine operators say the blast was an accident and the mine, in Coahuila state about 85 miles southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas, passed recent government inspections.

Miners interviewed by the Associated Press, however, told a different story — of being sent deep into dangerously unstable shafts without training or proper equipment.

‘Basic equipment and no training’
"Everything the (mine) company says about the safety measures is a lie," said Clemente Rivera, 28, a Pasta de Conchos mine worker whose two cousins and a neighbor remain trapped. "They give you basic equipment and no training."

Rivera, who helps put coal on the conveyor belt and repairs walls and reinforcements, said like all contract workers, he enters the mine with no more than rubber boots, a helmet with a lamp and an oxygen tank carrying one hour's worth of air.

"Here you sign a contract, and the next day they put you in the mines without even a tour, or any training," added Rivera, whose shift ended 12 hours before the explosion.

The national labor union representing miners issued a news release late Wednesday saying that miners had gone on strike against mine owner Grupo Mexico SA de CV at least 14 times "not only for salary increases ... but because of its constant refusal to review security and health measures."

Company officials could not be reached immediately for comment.

Relatives interviewed by the AP said that many of the 65 coal miners trapped since Sunday may have carried less than an hour of oxygen in "self-rescue" tanks.

Government officials had said the 65 men were carrying tanks with six hours of oxygen, and there were oxygen tanks scattered throughout the mine.

But Juan Rebolledo, vice president of international affairs for mine owner Grupo Mexico, said the tanks were meant for "temporary situations," and that the mine's ventilation system was more crucial to their survival.

‘The company isn't giving up’
"The (ventilation) system is working," he said. "But we don't know if the air is getting to them or if it's contaminated. The company isn't giving up. We're going to work as if there are still survivors."

Rebolledo said that the mine met national and international safety standards, "but accidents can always happen."

Pedro Camarillo, a federal labor official, said nothing unusual was found during a routine inspection Feb. 7.

Four mining experts from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration also arrived at the mine, along with specialized equipment for analyzing gas samples.

Anguished families have camped in the bitter cold outside the mine since they first received word of the explosion.

"What we want to know is when they are going to find our family members," said Miguel Arteaga, whose 39-year-old brother, Juan Raul Arteaga, is in the mine. "I'm not leaving here without my brother."

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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