BOGOTA Relatives of Colombian miners trapped in a coal mine began to lose hope of finding them alive on Saturday, three days after a blast buried 50 workers and killed at least 19 others.
Rescuers struggled with debris and gas after the explosion in northwestern Antioquia province late on Wednesday. Emergency workers tried to reach deep into the mine but said there was little chance of finding any miners alive 6,500 feet below the surface.
"The last thing you lose is hope, but we have no certainty or evidence that there are people alive down there," said Alfredo Munoz, head of emergency services in Antioquia. "Rescue operations continue, but the gas buildup is slowing efforts."
Colombian President Alvaro Uribe met relatives of the dead and missing in Amaga, a poor, rural town where the casualties were being buried in mass outdoor funerals.
"It has been hard to pull out the bodies, hopes are fading now," said Byron Ossa, a police officer waiting for news of a missing relative who worked at the mine.
Uribe's visit came a day before Colombians pick a new president in elections, putting in the spotlight on mining safety regulations. Colombia's mining industry ranges from huge deposits run by multinationals to hundreds of small, makeshift pits that produce coal for local markets.
The blast at the small San Fernando mine was far from major coal operations of Drummond and Glencore and is not expected to hurt the overall output of the world's No. 5 coal exporter.
Colombia's energy and mining industries have boomed under Uribe, who has fought back leftist rebels fighting Latin America's oldest insurgency. He steps down in August and his former defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, is seen set to succeed him in the run-off vote on Sunday.
(Reporting by Alonso Soto; Editing by Patrick Markey)