20 miners rescued, 5 still missing in Nicaragua collapse

Posted at 08/30/2014 5:20 PM

MANAGUA - Rescuers in Nicaragua on Friday rescued 20 miners who had been trapped deep underground for nearly two days after a cave-in at an unlicensed gold mine, but five more workers were still missing.

"We give thanks to God our Lord and the Virgin Mary for having saved from death 20 artisanal miners," First Lady Rosario Murillo, the presidential spokeswoman, told reporters.

Murillo said five miners had "not surfaced" and rescue crews were still working to locate them.

"Hopefully we can find them in the coming hours," she said.

The miners were pulled out one at a time using a pulley system installed late Friday near the pit where they had been trapped.

Most younger than 30, they were "pretty tired, exhausted, dehydrated, muddy and dirty," an AFP photographer on the scene said.

They were immediately embraced by family members, who had stayed nearby since the accident, and then taken to the nearest hospital.

There had been 28 "guiriseros," or informal gold miners, working in the shaft when the mouth of the mine caved in because of a landslide triggered by heavy downpours, early Thursday morning.

Two workers buried near the surface had earlier managed to dig their way out after the collapse in the remote village of El Comal in northeastern Nicaragua, according to the local disaster prevention committee.

Authorities had said earlier they were trying to confirm whether any miners had died, noting that the incident happened in a hard-to-reach area with poor communication.

A local TV station showed what appeared to be the body of a dead miner being recovered.

The accident happened at an artisanal mine near the town of Bonanza, which is perched on the side of a hill, in a region that is home to Nicaragua's biggest gold mines.

Desperate relatives initially tried to dig through to the trapped miners before being stymied by the unstable terrain, news reports said.

Word of the collapse only emerged late Thursday because the site is so remote, local disaster official Martha Lagos said.

- Modern gold rush -

Business has boomed over the past decade for Nicaragua's "guiriseros" as the price of gold has risen from less than $400 an ounce to more than $1,200.

They descend into old shafts that have been abandoned by conventional mining companies and look for remaining gold or dig even deeper to find new veins.

But the work can be perilous.

The scene of the collapse "is very high-risk and only they know the site because as the superficial veins of gold run out, they have to dig deeper and deeper in underground tunnels," said Lagos.

Informal gold mining is the main source of employment in Bonanza, where officials estimate there are 6,000 "guiriseros."

Many of them have migrated there from other parts of the country in a modern-day gold rush.

Bonanza's population has jumped in the past decade from around 8,000 people to 40,000, said Lagos.

Locals can earn $1,500 to $3,000 a month selling gold to foreign mining companies -- a relative fortune in Nicaragua.

Some informal miners work independently, while others are organized into officially authorized cooperatives.

Bonanza forms one point of the Central American country's so-called "mining triangle" in the remote Autonomous North Atlantic Region.

The latest accident comes four years after 33 workers were trapped deep inside Chile's San Jose copper and gold mine for more than two months, a drama that captured worldwide attention.

It took rescuers 17 days to drill a small shaft to establish contact, and more than two months of painstaking effort to open a passage wide enough to pull them out one by one.

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