Colombia: 21 killed in coal mine explosion

An explosion on Tuesday evening at a coal mine in central Colombia killed 21 people, officials said Thursday, one of the worst tragedies in recent years where such accidents are frequent.

“Unfortunately, 21 people lost their lives in this tragic accident in Sutatousa,” Colombian President Gustavo Petro tweeted on Thursday.

The department’s governor, Nicolás García, announced on Wednesday that eleven people had been found dead in the mine and that a search operation was underway to rescue ten more trapped.

A total of 30 people were present at the time of the explosion in this legal mine, located about 75 km from the capital Bogota.

Despite a race against time as the oxygen inside the caverns dwindled, several landslides prevented rescuers from entering the galleries.

Colombia (AFP- Gustavo Izus)

The miners were trapped 900 meters deep in six interconnected mine tunnels, which collapsed in a chain reaction due to the explosion.

“Unfortunately, there are no survivors, we are heartbroken,” Garcia tweeted on Thursday, announcing the end of the search.

The accident occurred after an “accumulation” of gas after a worker was exposed to a “spark generated by a pickaxe”, he explained on Wednesday.

The National Mining Agency said on Twitter that two miners were “rescued alive” shortly after the explosion.

– Photos of the victims –

Relatives of the miners posted pictures of the victims, mostly young men, on social media. Sutatousa and neighboring municipalities have an important mining tradition.

Miners rescued from the rubble told AFP the chaos that followed the explosion.

“I was acting normally when I felt a rumble”, then “I felt I was going to suffocate and I couldn’t see anything”, testified Joselito Rodriguez, a 33-year-old minor. “Thank God we came out safe, but the others are already dead,” he said on Wednesday shortly after leaving the hospital 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.

According to official figures (148 deaths in 2021), Colombia recorded 1,260 mining accidents between 2011 and May 2022, with an average annual death toll of 103.

In August, nine miners were rescued after the collapse of an illegal coal mine in the same department of Cundinamarca 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 the main export products of Colombia, which is a major coal producer. According to the Ministry of Mines and Energy, Colombia had “53% of the proven coal reserves in Latin America and 0.6% of world reserves” in 2020.

At least 130,000 people make a legal living from mining in the country, Latin America’s fourth-largest economy. But unions routinely denounce poor working conditions, lack of protective equipment and long working hours.

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