Rescuers pull bodies from Mexico mine, others trapped

Wed May 4, 2011 11:31am EDT

* Gov't says five bodies recovered, others feared dead

* Mexico's small coal mines are little holes in the desert

By Alberto Fajardo

SABINAS, Mexico, May 4 (Reuters) - Mexican rescuers with oxygen tanks searched for nine miners feared dead on Wednesday, a day after a coal mine explosion killed five others, a reminder of dangers facing the thinly regulated industry.

Rescue workers pulled the bodies of five miners from the small pit in the desert state of Coahuila near Texas overnight after the explosion on Tuesday morning caused by a build-up of methane gas near the town of Sabinas.

Mining near-surface coal in the impoverished state is a way of life for thousands of miners who sell the coal to the Mexican state for power generation. They often work with little more than basic tools, and accidents are common.

"I'm waiting for my son, he's in there," said a man overcome with emotion at the mine site in Sabinas, himself a miner who did not give his name. "I know it's risky, but this is what we do, there's no other work," he added.

Mindful of the anger still felt after Mexico's worst coal mining accident in 2006, when 65 miners died, Labor Minister Javier Lozano spent the night at the mine and hurried between radio and TV interviews while updating his Twitter feed.

He said the body of the fifth miner was hauled out of the mine, which had been in operation for 20 days, after midnight and he warned those still trapped were probably dead.

"The experts are telling us that there's no chance (the miners are still alive) after an accident of this nature," Lozano told Mexican radio.

A teenage worker lost his arm in the blast, which Sabinas Mayor Jesus Montemayor said was felt for miles around.

Mexico gets most of its coal domestically, although imports have increased in recent years as coal-fired power generation increased.

Mexico has been a top mining exporter for centuries and expects some $4 billion in investment in the industry this year, but tiny coal mines often escape inspection and bypass almost the most basic safety standards. Workers are often younger than 18, and rarely bother with helmets.

The mines, known as "pocitos" or little holes, are dug and run by men with blackened faces, often heavyset, who can extract as much as 30 tonnes of coal a day. Using a bucket and a steel cable attached to a truck engine, they haul out rocks in the scorching desert heat.

Even the country's bigger coal mines are dangerous.

Mexico's worst mining accident in recent years occurred in 2006 at Grupo Mexico's (GMEXICOB.MX) Pasta de Conchos coal mine where 65 workers died following an explosion.

Families of the victims are pressing for a renewed effort to recover the 63 bodies that are still trapped in the mine.

The Pasta de Conchos accident deepened mistrust between Grupo Mexico and unions, which have pushed for improved safety regulations at Mexican mines. (Additional reporting and writing by Robin Emmott; Editing by David Gregorio)

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