The explosion that occurred Tuesday evening in a coal mine in central Colombia killed 21 people, authorities said Thursday, one of the worst tragedies in recent years in a country where accidents of this type are frequent.
“Unfortunately, 21 people lost their lives in this tragic accident in Sutatausa”, in the department of Cundinamarca, tweeted Colombian President Gustavo Petro on Thursday.
The governor of the department, Nicolas Garcia, announced on Wednesday that eleven people had been found dead in the mine and that search operations were continuing to rescue ten others who were stuck.
A total of 30 people were at the time of the explosion in this legal mine located about 75 km from the capital Bogota.
Despite a race against time as oxygen became scarce inside the cavities, several landslides prevented rescuers from entering the galleries.
The miners were trapped 900 meters deep in the tunnels of six interconnected mines which collapsed in a chain reaction caused by the explosion.
“Unfortunately, no one is alive, we are heartbroken,” Governor Garcia tweeted Thursday, announcing the end of the search.
The accident occurred after an “accumulation” of gas came into contact with “a spark generated by the pickaxe” of a worker, he explained on Wednesday.
The National Mining Agency said on Twitter that two miners were “saved alive” shortly after the explosion.
– Photos of the victims –
Relatives of the miners posted photos of the victims, mostly young men, on social media. Sutatausa and neighboring municipalities have an important mining tradition.
Miners rescued from the rubble told AFP of the chaos that followed the explosion.
“I was working normally when I felt a rumbling”, then “I thought I was going to choke and I could not see anything”, testified by telephone Joselito Rodriguez, a minor of 33 years. “Thank God we came out unscathed but others are already dead,” he said shortly after leaving hospital on Wednesday where he was treated for respiratory failure.
Accidents in mines, often caused by firedamp explosions, are frequent in Colombia, especially in illegal mining operations, which are numerous in the country.
Colombia recorded 1,260 mining accidents between 2011 and May 2022, for an average annual death toll of 103, according to official data (148 deaths in 2021).
In August, nine miners were rescued in the same department of Cundinamarca after the collapse of the illegal coal mine in which they were working. In June, fifteen miners died in a coal mine in the municipality of Zulia, near the Venezuelan border.
Petroleum and legal mining are Colombia’s main export products, a major coal producer. According to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, Colombia had in 2020 “53% of proven coal reserves in Latin America and 0.6% of world reserves”.
At least 130,000 people make a legal living from mining in the country, Latin America’s fourth largest economy. But the unions regularly denounce the poor working conditions, the lack of protective equipment and the working hours.