At least five people were dead and up to 100 feared trapped after an explosion and cave-in at a gold mine in the southern Philippines, officials said on Friday.
Toxic fumes were keeping rescuers away two days after five bodies and 11 injured miners were pulled out after the accident in the Mount Diwalwal area on the southern island of Mindanao late on Wednesday, village chief Franco Tito told Reuters.
Villagers said a loud explosion was heard before the so-called Sunshine tunnel collapsed.
The Office of Civil Defense said on Friday an estimated 100 people were trapped, but there were lower estimates from other sources. Radio reports on Thursday had said 18 people had died and that 50 were trapped and feared dead.
“We’re not really sure how many people were trapped inside,” Tito said. “I talked with three survivors and they told me there could be 50 to 70 people inside when the tunnel collapsed.”
Rescue teams could not penetrate the mine because of fumes, Tito added. The poisonous gas had seeped into two nearby tunnels, the entrances to which are about 800 meters (870 yards) up the side of a mountain.
“They said they have no special suits and equipment to battle the thick smoke and toxic fumes from inside the tunnel,” Tito said. “They told us they will come back in two days, waiting for the poisonous gas to blow away.”
Edilberto Arreza, regional director of the Mines and Geosciences Bureau, said only 11 people were believed trapped.
Pumping out gases
The other two tunnels had been evacuated for safety reasons.
Arreza said as many as 50 people were initially feared to have been trapped in an area where hundreds of small-scale miners have been in operation for decades, but that most of the workers had been accounted for.
“Rescuers are pumping out all the gases in the mine with ventilation fans,” he said. “We might be able to enter this afternoon.”
The accident happened as the Philippines rolls out the welcome mat for foreign investors to revive its moribund mining sector to take advantage of high prices of gold and other metals.
The government has said the country has $1 trillion worth of unexplored mining reserves, enough to pay off the country’s public sector debt of $95 billion many times over.
Mount Diwalwal was a famous gold rush area in the 1980s and swiftly became a mining town with more than 30,000 people operating illegal small-scale mines.
In November 2002, the government designated Mount Diwalwal and its surrounding areas as a mineral reservation.
Small miners were allowed to form cooperatives and the government gave them service contracts under the Diwalwal Direct Estate Development Project, Arreza said.
There are 23 cooperatives operating in the area, with an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people directly involved in mining.
The accident happened in one of the few privately owned mines in Mount Diwalwal, operated by local firm JB Mining and Management Corp., Arreza said.