SAN JUAN DE SABINAS, Mexico – Emergency crews using picks, shovels and their hands tunneled feverishly through dirt, wood, metal and rock on Monday in an attempt to reach 65 coal miners trapped by a gas explosion 600 feet underground.
Officials said that while it was unlikely the miners were still alive, there was still a chance of finding survivors. U.S. mining experts were expected to arrive today.
Above ground, priests and pastors led hundreds of the miners’ friends and relatives in prayer for the men trapped by Sunday morning’s explosion at the Pasta de Conchos mine near the town of San Juan de Sabinas, 85 miles southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas.
Women wept openly and swayed with their arms in the air as the religious leaders spoke, and men wiped tears from their eyes.
“We are waiting for a miracle from God,” said Norma Vitela, whose trapped husband, Jose Angel Guzman, had previously told her of problems with gas in the mine. She said the father of four, who earns $75 a week, could not afford to quit.
At nightfall, some of the miners’ family members, who had been camped outside the pit for more than 36 hours, called through a megaphone for more information.
“Tell us the truth!” one man shouted.
The trapped men carried only six hours of oxygen, but officials said they believed a ventilation system that uses fans to pump in fresh air and suck out dangerous gases was still working. Even so, they could not be certain oxygen was arriving where the miners were trapped.
Juan Rebolledo, vice president of international affairs for mine owner Grupo Mexico, said oxygen tanks were scattered throughout the site, but it was impossible to know if the trapped miners had reached any of them.
More than 36 hours of digging pushed rescue teams 450 yards into the mine, about 50 yards from where two conveyor belt operators were believed to be trapped, said Sergio Robles, director of emergency services for Coahuila state.
But others were thought to be trapped as far as three miles from the mine entrance.
Robles said rescuers avoided using electric or gas-powered machinery because of the presence of explosive gases.
Robles said the roof of the mine was better reinforced after 400 meters, giving rescuers hope that they might be able to advance more quickly. He said if there were survivors, they could very well be trying to dig their way out from the other side.