Colombian rescuers struggled against gas and debris to reach more than 50 miners still trapped and feared dead Friday after a blast tore through a coal mine in the country's worst mining disaster.
At least 18 bodies were pulled from the wreckage Thursday after the midnight gas explosion in northwestern Antioquia province. Rescuers had little hope for 53 others caught 6,500 feet below the surface.
The blast at the small San Fernando mine occurred far from the major operations run by companies such as Drummond and Glencore in the world's No. 5 coal exporter which is enjoying a boom in mining and energy investment.
Rescue efforts have been suspended several times while workers ventilate the mine shafts to disperse dangerous gases.
"We believe there were between 70 to 72 people inside, and we've recovered 18 bodies so far," said Luis Alfredo Ramos, governor of Antioquia province. "The rescue operation is still suspended because of an accumulation of gas and they are in the process of ventilation."
Families of missing miners gathered at a local sports hall in the town of Amaga, where authorities set up a makeshift morgue and bodies wrapped in white sheets were ferried into hearses. Many carried photographs of missing kin.
Coal mining is dangerous even in more developed countries. Explosions and collapses are common, especially in China. In April, an explosion killed 29 miners in West Virginia in the deadliest U.S. mine disaster in more than 20 years.
Spotlight on safety
The disaster will put the spotlight on mining safety regulations in Colombia, where the industry ranges from large deposits operated by multinationals to hundreds of small, makeshift pits that produce coal for local markets.
Colombia produces around 70 million tons of coal a year with most of its exports shipped to Europe, the United States and the Caribbean but with increasing focus on Asia and China.
The latest blast will not have a broad impact on the coal market because the mine is small and supplies the domestic market and some European traders, markets sources said.
Last year, a methane gas explosion in another Antioquia province coal mine killed eight workers and, in 2007, an explosion in Norte de Santander killed 31 miners were killed one of the country's worst mining disasters.
Colombia has benefited from the boom in energy and mining investment under President Alvaro Uribe, who sent troops out to drive back leftist rebels fighting Latin America's oldest insurgency who once controlled large parts of the country.
Uribe steps down in August and his former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, is favored 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.