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Resignation Sets In at Mexican Mine

The search for 65 men is temporarily suspended because of dangerous methane levels.

February 25, 2006|Carlos Martinez and Sam Enriquez | Times Staff Writers

SAN JUAN DE SABINAS, Mexico — Authorities late Friday temporarily suspended the six-day search for 65 coal miners trapped by an explosion because high levels of methane in underground tunnels posed a danger to rescue workers.

A crowd of relatives and friends reacted with anger, briefly grabbing two mine officials and Mexico's secretary of labor, Francisco Salazar. Soldiers quickly moved Salazar to safety and calm was restored.

The crowd's hopes were crushed in increments Friday, beginning early in the day with news that air samples from an area where a third of the men were believed to be showed toxic levels of methane.

"If there were people there, they would be dead," said Salazar, who quickly added, "but the only way to confirm any deaths is to find bodies."

The suspension of the search for at least two days prompted many to say there was little hope of finding anyone alive.

Crews facing repeated cave-ins and high levels of methane have nonetheless moved hundreds of tons of dirt and rubble since an explosion trapped the men early Sunday, some of them a mile or more down the shaft of the Pasta de Conchos mine. The mine, in the state of Coahuila, is about 70 miles southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas.

Officials and family members had hoped the mine's ventilation system -- still operating after the blast -- was delivering enough oxygen for miners to survive.

But tests, confirmed by visiting U.S. mining experts, showed methane levels as high as 51%, Salazar said. Local expert David Luna said the shortage of oxygen at such levels would quickly be fatal.

Rescuers have dug as far as 900 yards into the partially collapsed mine and have found no sign of the men, who have not been heard from since the explosion.

Mine officials began calling families Friday to say they would be offered about $70,000 for each miner who died.

Several hundred people have camped out in front of the mine gates, sleeping in plastic chairs and clutching donated blankets.

"People seem more calm today," government psychologist Jose de Jesus Espinoza Guerre said Friday. "They understand what is happening, and they say all they want is to recover the bodies."

Father Francisco Martin Garcia, a local priest, said many people he had counseled Friday were accepting the idea they would never again see their fathers, sons and brothers. Religious faith, he said, "is the only thing you have in cases like this."

But a 10-year-old boy whose uncle is among the missing was angry. He booed Salazar, the labor secretary, and yelled, "You should go down there and see the conditions yourself!"

To mine superintendent Ruben Escudero he shouted, "Are you a field engineer or a desk engineer?"

The boy, who would give his name only as Daniel, said mine owner Grupo Mexico and government officials had frustrated him and others. "We just want the bodies now," the boy said. "They can't leave them there."

*

Martinez reported from San Juan de Sabinas and Enriquez from Mexico City.

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