Rescuers Race to Reach Trapped Nicaragua Miners

August 30, 2014

Rescuers worked overnight to free at least 11 of the 24 miners trapped in a gold mine in Nicaragua sealed shut by a mudslide. The freed miners were able to walk out of the mine on their own, despite being trapped in the mine for more than 24 hours. Rescue workers expect to free more of the trapped in the coming hours.

Marvin Urbina, one of the rescued miners, said that he had seen an "avalanche of mud and rock" coming right toward him on Thursday morning at the El Comal gold and silver mine in Bonanza, Nicaragua. Urbina and a group of other miners all pressed themselves against the walls of the mine shaft to avoid being crushed by the torrent of debris. But Urbina said at least four miners couldn't get out of the way of the mudslide in time, and were swept away and crushed by the debris flow.

Rescuers announced Friday night that they had located at least 20 of the miners, according to the Associated Press.

Heavy rain in recent days caused a landslide to pour into the mouth of the mine shaft. 

"Weather observations indicate that rain and thunderstorms were in the area," said meteorologist Chrissy Warrilow.

On Friday afternoon, teams of dogs were able to locate 20 miners trapped inside, who communicated with rescue workers attempting to get them out, according to said Alexander Alvarado, mayor of the town of Bonanza. He said they didn't know the whereabouts of the other four.

Hundreds of relatives and fellow miners prayed outside the El Comal gold and silver mine in the community of Bonanza as rescuers lined up wooden ladders along a 200-foot long tunnel leading toward where the 20 miners are trapped in a kind of cave, authorities said. Rescuers were hoping to be able to deliver food and water to the men, who have been trapped for over 24 hours. 

(MORE: A Disaster No One Is Talking About)

Gregory Downs, superintendent of communications at Hemco mining company, said that workers were not employed by Nicaragua-based Hemco, which operates the mines in the area, but are freelancers who are allowed to work in Hemco's mines as long as they sell the gold they find to the company. The mine the workers are trapped in had previously been condemned and shut down because of instability and the company had warned miners not the enter the shaft. 

"The rescue efforts are permanent and won't stop until we have helped the people who remain inside," Hemco said in a statement. 

It was unclear if anyone had been killed in the slide, but local media stations showed what appeared to be rescuers recovering a body from the mine, according to Yahoo News (Via AFP). Officials were also gathering coffins for a worst-case scenario. 

"Supposedly there are dead but that is not confirmed," local disaster official Martha Lagos told AFP. 

Miners and residents ares still studying possible ways to reach the trapped miners, said commander Javier Amaya of the rescue team.

"We have organized a rescue plan. Every 15 minutes a group of five or 10 miners will enter the mine on wooden ladders, tying themselves off and going in until they reach them," said Amaya.

Bonanza is a remote mountainous town that is home to Nicaragua's biggest gold mines. Seasonal rains have plagued the area this year, and another landslide just two months ago killed two miners.

Nicaragua is considered one of the poorest countries in Latin America, according to the BBC.

"We live by extracting mineral from Hemco. They told us digging here was risky, but sometimes one is willing to risk it for a few more cents," said Absalon Toledo, director of the informal miners.

According to Hemco's website, the company has mined in the north Atlantic municipality since 1995 and employs 532 workers, who process 700 tons of material a day. The company, majority owned by Colombia's Mineros S.A., says it produces more than 2,500 pounds of gold a year and is Nicaragua's 12th largest exporter.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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