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Blast worries slow efforts at Colombia mine, 70 feared dead

AMAGA, Colombia, June 19, 2010: The search for more than 50 workers missing and presumed dead after a fiery explosion at a Colombian coal mine resumed tentatively Friday after 18 bodies were recovered, amid fears of a new blast.

At least 70 miners in total were likely killed in the blast which ripped through underground shafts late Wednesday near the city of Medellin, incinerating several of the workers inside, authorities said. A single miner was found alive.

Sixteen of the badly burned bodies have been identified with the help of experts and their families notified.

"Most of the bodies were unrecognizable, so it was necessary for relatives to help us by providing some characteristics like tattoos, scars, photographs and dental records," said Amaga health department director Javier Araque.

Even as the search continued Friday, mourners held the first funerals for the dead, with hundreds of people attending an open-air mass in Amaga for the first four victims released to relatives.

Dozens of relatives meanwhile continued their desperate vigil near the site of the disaster, anxious for news of missing loved ones, but rescue and recovery operations proceeded haltingly out of concern the mine was still unsafe due to a buildup of toxic gases.

"We resumed operations in the morning, but we are proceeding slowly, intermittently, because we are acting according to the safety conditions," said Byron Restrepo, who heads the rescue corps for Colombia's mining institute Ingeominas.

Officials said an apparent buildup of gas caused the explosion in the San Fernando mine, and that the prospect of finding survivors was poor.

"We have determined that there were 71 miners in the mine at the time of the explosion, and we are investigating whether there are any others," Auxilio Zapata, the mayor of Amaga in northwestern Colombia, told AFP.

The force of the blast caused cave-ins in parts of the mine, one of the largest in Colombian's northwestern coal-producing region.

A team entered the mine Thursday afternoon and were able to make it 180 meters (yards) inside, but the search was suspended at 5:30 pm (2230 GMT) to allow gas levels to dissipate, officials said. The search resumed at 6:00 am Friday.

"The high concentration of gasses in the mine could trigger a new explosion at any moment," Restrepo said, adding that operations would ramp up quickly when gas levels drop sufficiently.

Although the mine is seen as one of the most sophisticated of the region, Amaga deputy city council chairman Eduardo Acevedo told AFP that it lacked adequate gas ventilation.

"Although it seems the product of an accidental situation, this could also be blamed in part on a lack of foresight or care for mining and industrial safety," Acevedo said, noting that miners often complained of oppressive heat in the mine shafts, a condition which they attribute to poor ventilation.

Sixty percent of Amaga's 27,000 inhabitants directly or indirectly make a living from the area's coal mines, the mayor said.

This was the second major incident at the San Fernando mine. On July 14, 1977, 86 miners were killed in a similar event, Acevedo recalled, while in November 2008 the mine flooded, leaving five people dead.

President Alvaro Uribe on Thursday expressed his condolences over the disaster, saying he was "very sad... for the people trapped there. It's a very difficult fate."

Colombia's Minister of Mines Hernan Martinez said there appeared to have been no gas detectors in the mine. AFP

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