5 Dead, 9 Missing in Mexican Coal Mine Explosion

SAN JUAN DE SABINAS, Mexico -- Mexican officials who had hoped to call in Chilean experts to help rescue 14 miners trapped in a coal mine instead have had to break the tragic news to relatives that five bodies have already been found and there is little hope the nine others have survived.

The gas explosion that ripped through the primitive, vertical-shaft mine Tuesday was so powerful it seriously injured a 15-year-old boy working on a conveyor belt outside the pit. Labor Secretary Javier Lozano said that left little hope those inside could have withstood the force of the blast.

"The outlook is very bad," Lozano said at the scene. "The truth is that it does not allow us to hold out much hope."

A team of four rescuers who entered the mine after an initial explorer declared it safe to do so, quickly found the bodies of three miners at the front face of the rubble shaken loose by the blast. The mine employees later found two more bodies, and one rescuer who had been down the partially collapsed shaft said there was little chance anyone survived.

Just hours earlier, officials had been hoping for a Chilean-style miracle rescue, like that of the 33 miners who survived 69 days underground following the Aug. 5 collapse of the San Jose mine in Chile and were rescued in October.

Lozano said Mexico had asked Chile for help, and that four experts were expected to arrive shortly.

But hopes fell and wailing sobs rose up from the crowd of about 80 friends and relatives when they spotted a truck from the local morgue show up at the pit head.

"No, Lord, I don't want this to happen," wailed one woman, as she was embraced by another outside the small mine located in San Juan de Sabinas, Coahuila state, about 85 miles (135 kilometers) southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon issued a statement late Tuesday expressing his condolences to the victims' families. He said the federal government "will do everything in its power to help state and local authorities rescue the rest of the trapped miners."

The injured boy had worked separating coal from tailings; he was taken to a hospital in serious condition, said Jesus Espinoza, a spokesman for mining company BIMSA. Federal prosecutors later said both the boy's arms had been amputated and that he remained in serious condition.

Lozano said the boy's employment at the mine was an apparent violation of labor laws.

The 14 miners were down the 197-foot (60-meter) deep shaft when the explosion happened early Tuesday.

The mine had opened just over a month ago, and employed about 25 miners.

The national mine workers' union said in a statement that the mine's work force was not unionized, and it criticized what it called "the totally unsafe conditions in which coal mines in Mexico, and especially in this region known as the coal belt, operate."

Officials said they were investigating who was actually operating the mine, because there was conflicting registry data.

And the federal Attorney General's Office said it had opened an investigation into the blast, which it said was caused by a gas buildup.

A similar blast caused by methane gas killed 65 miners in February 2006 at the Pasta de Conchos coal mine in San Juan de Sabinas, near where Tuesday's explosion occurred.

Rescuers eventually recovered the bodies of two miners from the 2006 blast but tons of wood, rock and metal, as well as toxic gas, prevented the recovery of the others.

On Tuesday, a group of relatives of miners killed in the 2006 explosion issued a press statement calling on the government to outlaw the kind of more dangerous, small-scale, vertical-shaft coal mines that dot the region. Coahuila Gov. Jorge Torres Lopez promised the small mines would be subject to review and inspection.

Still smarting from criticism about the government's failings in mine safety, and their inability to recover the bodies from the 2006 blast, federal officials promised aid to the trapped miners' families and all necessary assistance in the rescue effort.