Mexican authorities said Friday they were finally in a position to begin searching a flooded coal mine where 10 workers have been trapped for more than a week, offering fresh hope to anguished qrelatives.
Several hundred rescuers, including soldiers and military scuba divers, are taking part in efforts to save the miners missing since August 3 in the northern state of Coahuila.
“We have all the conditions to go down there… to search for and rescue” the miners, civil defense national coordinator Laura Velazquez said by video link during President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s morning news conference.
But as nightfall later approached, Velazquez sounded a more cautious note, telling reporters it was unclear when the search would begin.
A specialist military team had made several more descents into one of the vertical shafts of El Pinabete mine to remove wood and other debris blocking their way, she said.
But they had not yet reached the floor of the 60-meter (200-foot) deep shaft to access the main tunnels where the workers were believed to be trapped, Velazquez added.
“I cannot even tell you for sure when we’re going to enter the galleries. There’s no way,” she said.
Earlier Defense Minister Luis Cresencio Sandoval said that the water level in one of the three shafts that rescuers would try to enter has been reduced to 70 centimeters (27 inches), from more than 30 meters initially.
The other two shafts still have 3.9 and 4.7 meters of water.
Authorities consider 1.5 meters to be an acceptable water level to gain access to the crudely constructed El Pinabete mine.
“In any case, we’re going to continue pumping… The process is slow but we don’t want to take any risks,” said Velazquez.
Five miners managed to escape following the initial accident, in which workers carrying out excavation activities hit an adjoining area full of water, but there have been no signs of life from the others.
The government’s announcement on Friday morning had provided a new glimmer of hope for families that have become increasingly frustrated with the pace of the rescue operation.
“With that level (of water) you can already enter — God willing,” David Huerta, the brother-in-law of one of the trapped workers, told AFP.
The 35-year-old said that he himself had dug for coal in small artisanal mines like El Pinabete for nearly 13 years before abandoning the dangerous, grueling work.
At the bottom of the vertical shafts rescuers will reach the underground tunnels where the digging takes place, and where the missing miners are probably located, Huerta said.
“Crews can go in there and search faster,” he added.
Armando Ontiveros, one of the miners volunteering to help the rescuers, said there was still a chance that the workers were in a higher part of the mine above the water.
“Hopefully there’s a miracle and they’re out there alive,” the 47-year-old said.
Relatives and friends held a candlelit vigil on Thursday night for those missing, singing and praying for their safe return.
Coahuila, Mexico’s main coal-producing region, has seen a series of fatal mining incidents over the years.
The worst accident was an explosion that claimed 65 lives at the Pasta de Conchos mine in 2006.
Last year, seven died when they were trapped in a mine in the region.