SARDINATA, Colombia – An explosion that roared through a makeshift coal mine has killed 32 miners in northeast Colombia, most still buried in gas-filled tunnels below ground, a civil defense official said.
Yesid Arias, who is helping to coordinate the rescue operation, made the announcement shortly before midnight Saturday after rescue crews recovered three bodies. They located 29 more bodies buried about 1,300 feet underground but were unable to safely remove them from the mine in the remote hamlet of San Roque, 255 miles northeast of Bogota.
"We have orders to work through the night and recover the bodies as quickly as possible, but unfortunately there's still plenty of trapped methane gas that's making it unsafe for work crews to stay underground for any extended period of time," Arias said.
Family members, who had rushed to the mine shortly after the Saturday morning explosion, were relocated to the nearby town of Sardinata, where they awaited news.
The morning explosion was caused by "some spark and the gas that was inside" the mine, said Fernando Rosales, director of civil defense in Norte de Santander state.
Norte de Santander, where the mine is located, is a violence-ridden state overrun by leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups who often battle each other for control of lucrative drug smuggling routes across the border with Venezuela.
Many mines in this Andean nation are makeshift affairs with few or no safety procedures.
In January 2006, three self-employed coal miners — a 60-year-old father and his two sons — died at a mine in the same region after inhaling poisonous gases.
Other mine disasters in Colombia have been the result of landslides and erosion.
In 2001, at least 37 gold miners were killed after a hillside gave way and swept over them at a strip mine located 120 miles west of Bogota. The mine had been shut down earlier in the year because erosion made it unstable.