Hopes fade for 9 trapped miners in northern Mexico

Stunned and saddened relatives held a vigil Wednesday outside a mine in northern Mexico where nine workers were trapped and possibly dead following an explosion that killed at least five of their colleagues.

Rescuers used picks, shovels and their hands to tunnel through dirt, wood, metal and rock in a frantic effort to reach the miners trapped 197 feet (60 meters) underground in the northwestern state of Coahuila.

"We want their bodies, regardless of their condition," said Silvia Martinez, whose nephew is missing.

Martinez was one of about 60 relatives of the miners who waited overnight in three tents provided for them by local authorities outside the mine in San Juan de Sabinas, about 85 miles (135 kilometers) southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas.

"All we want is for them to give us news, to tell us the truth," Martinez added.

A group of frustrated relatives shouting "We want information or we'll enter the mine" charged against a metal fence keeping them away from the mine shaft Tuesday afternoon.

Labor Secretary Javier Lozano calmed the group and promised he would give them an update on the rescue every hour.

A team of four rescuers who entered the mine quickly found the bodies of three workers in front of the rubble shaken loose by the blast. Miners later found two more bodies. A worker who participated in the rescue efforts and saw inside the partially collapsed shaft said there was little chance anyone survived.

"We have to stop thinking they could be alive," said Fernando Garza, 44, during a break after authorities suspended rescue efforts because of a gas buildup. "Everything inside collapsed."

Garza added that it will be difficult to find the bodies of the rest of the victims, "but not impossible."

"We have to get them out and we will," he said.

Just hours earlier, officials had been hoping for a miraculous rescue like that of the 33 miners in Chile who survived 69 days underground following the Aug. 5 collapse of the San Jose mine. Lozano said Mexico had asked Chile for help, and that five experts were expected to arrive Thursday.

But wails rose from the crowd of friends and relatives when they spotted a truck from the local morgue arriving at the pit head.

"No, Lord, I don't want this to happen," said one sobbing woman as she was embraced by another.

The federal Attorney General's Office said the explosion in the primitive, vertical-shaft mine early Tuesday was caused by a gas buildup and it would open an investigation. A similar blast caused by a methane gas buildup killed 65 miners in February 2006 at the Pasta de Conchos coal mine in nearby San Juan de Sabinas.

The latest explosion was so powerful it seriously injured a 15-year-old boy working on a conveyor belt outside the pit, Lozano said made it very unlikely any miners inside could have withstood the force of the blast.

"The outlook is very bad," he said.

The teenager was taken to the city of Guadalajara for medical attention, Lozano said. He had been operating the basket that carries the coal out of the mine. Federal prosecutors said in a statement that one of the boy's arms was torn off by the blast and that he remained in serious condition.

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

Mexican President Felipe Calderon issued a statement late Tuesday expressing 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 14 miners were down in the 197-foot-deep (60-meter-deep) shaft when the explosion ripped through the mine, which had opened a little more than 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 conflicting registry data have made it hard to determine who actually owns the mine.

On Tuesday, a group of relatives of miners killed in the 2006 explosion issued a statement calling on the government to outlaw the kind of 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.