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Mine Rescuers Vow to Keep Up Search

February 23, 2006

SAN JUAN DE SABINAS, Mexico (AP) _ After four days of digging through hundreds of tons of rubble, weary rescue workers, many of them miners, said Thursday they would not give up the search for 65 trapped comrades despite having found no indications of life.

``We are not going to abandon our comrades, dead or alive,″ said Alvaro Cortes, his face lined with exhaustion and blackened with coal as he left the Pasta de Conchos mine early Thursday following an overnight rescue shift.

``We all want to find them and end this episode,″ said rescue worker Ruben Quintero, who emerged from the pit late Wednesday night. Quintero acknowledged that the rescuers had found ``no signs of life.″

Mine owners and government officials refused to rule out the possibility that there are survivors more than four days after Sunday’s pre-dawn gas explosion.

``We would be insensitive if I tell them there’s no sign of life. It’s a question only God can answer,″ said mine administrator Ruben Escudero.

Escudero said 72 workers were working around the clock to remove 600 to 800 tons of debris. Fresh air was being pumped to an area of the mine that had been cleared with the hope that rescuers could shed their heavy oxygen tanks and work faster.

Mine operators say the blast was an accident and the mine, in Coahuila state about 85 miles southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas, passed recent government inspections.

Miners interviewed by The Associated Press, however, told a different story _ of being sent deep into dangerously unstable shafts without training or proper equipment.

``Everything the (mine) company says about the safety measures is a lie,″ said Clemente Rivera, 28, a Pasta de Conchos mine worker whose two cousins and a neighbor remain trapped. ``They give you basic equipment and no training.″

Rivera, who helps put coal on the conveyor belt and repairs walls and reinforcements, said like all contract workers, he enters the mine with no more than rubber boots, a helmet with a lamp and an oxygen tank carrying one hour’s worth of air.

``Here you sign a contract, and the next day they put you in the mines without even a tour, or any training,″ added Rivera, whose shift ended 12 hours before the explosion.

Relatives interviewed by the AP said that many of the 65 coal miners trapped since Sunday may have carried less than an hour of oxygen in ``self-rescue″ tanks, contradicting Coahuila state officials who said the miners had a six-hour supply when the shafts above them collapsed in a toxic gas explosion.

Government officials had said the 65 men were carrying tanks with six hours of oxygen, and there were oxygen tanks scattered throughout the mine.

But Juan Rebolledo, vice president of international affairs for mine owner Grupo Mexico, Rebolledo said the tanks were meant for ``temporary situations,″ and that the mine’s ventilation system was more crucial to their survival.

``The (ventilation) system is working,″ he said. ``But we don’t know if the air is getting to them or if it’s contaminated. The company isn’t giving up. We’re going to work as if there are still survivors.″

Rebolledo said that the mine met national and international safety standards, ``but accidents can always happen.″

Pedro Camarillo, a federal labor official, said nothing unusual was found during a routine inspection Feb. 7.

Rescuers moved closer to the site Wednesday where the first two of the trapped miners are believed to be, a federal official said.

Four mining experts from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration also arrived at the mine, along with specialized equipment for analyzing gas samples.

The two miners condition _ dead or alive _ could provide a clue to the fate of remaining workers trapped deeper inside the mine, federal Labor Secretary Francisco Salazar told a Mexican TV network Wednesday.

Salazar said the two conveyor belt operators are believed to be less than 54 yards beyond a wall of debris that rescuers have been trying to break through since early Tuesday.

Anguished families have camped in the bitter cold outside the mine since they first received word of the explosion.

``What we want to know is when they are going to find our family members,″ said Miguel Arteaga, whose 39-year-old brother, Juan Raul Arteaga, is in the mine. ``I’m not leaving here without my brother.″

After 36 years of mining, Arteaga knows the risks that come with his trade. His five brothers have all been miners, and he chose the same path rather than earn less at an assembly plant or in construction work.

He currently works in a separate nearby mine without an oxygen tank, descending some 190 feet to extract coal by using picks and wheelbarrows. Falling coal has broken both Arteaga’s legs, and last September falling rocks broke his right foot.

He said he survived a 2002 explosion at the La Morita mine that killed 12 of his co-workers.

``I was one of the last to go down, and when I got inside I heard a very loud noise and the ground shook,″ Arteaga, 56, said. ``I didn’t have time to even cross myself.″

Rivera said he left another mine because it was more dangerous.

``Supposedly this one was safer,″ he said. ``But look what happened.″

___

Associated Press Writer Ioan Grillo contributed to this report.

On the Net:

Grupo Mexico, S.A. de C.V.: www.gmexico.com

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