BONANZA, Nicaragua (AP) — Rescuers in Nicaragua raced Friday to reach at least 24 freelance gold miners trapped by a landslide, including 20 who have been located and have managed to communicate with emergency crews.
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. The mine cuts into the side of a mountain and upward. The miners were trapped when the shaft they were working in was cut off by collapsed earth.
Bonanza Mayor Alexander Alvarado said rescuers are close to reaching the area where the miners have been cut off for more than 24 hours. Workers normally enter the mines with enough food and water for the workday.
"In a few minutes it will be possible to bring them food and water," he said.
Commander Javier Amaya of the rescue team said the rescue plan involves groups "of five or 10 miners entering the mine on wooden ladders, tying themselves off and going in until they reach them."
Amaya said local residents had joined the rescue crews. Bonanza is located about 260 miles (420 kilometers) northeast of Managua.
Teams with dogs helped locate the 20 trapped miners, but authorities had not yet been able to get them out by Friday night. The 20 have been able to communicate with rescue workers, telling them they don't know the whereabouts of the other four miners. Two other miners were rescued earlier.
Hundreds of relatives, friends and fellow miners with their helmet lights turned on gathered at El Comal, praying and crying as they waited for news.
Jorge Hernandez, 25, said he learned his brother is one of the miners trapped while watching television in Nicaragua's capital, Managua. He said he rushed to Bonanza.
"We're praying to God with all of our souls so that my brother and the other men can be rescued alive and well," he said. He added that his brother Michael, 24, moved to Bonanza from Managua last year to work in the mine.
The gold and silver mine is operated by Colombia's Hemco. The trapped miners are not employees of Hemco, but rather freelancers allowed to work in the company's concession if they sell any gold they find to the firm, mining company spokesman Gregorio Downs told The Associated Press.
Downs said the company had warned miners about the danger of working in the El Comal area, especially after two miners died in a rain-caused landslide there last month.
"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, leader of the informal miners.
Authorities didn't receive word of the landslide until late Thursday after the mine lost contact with the workers, who are believed to be about 165 feet (50 meters) below the surface.
"We are doing everything possible so that the 20 workers come out alive, but we don't know how long it is going to take," said Marta Lagos, secretary of the governing Sandinistas.
Downs told the government's news website that the company initially had contact with the trapped miners. But he said apparently there were more slides inside after the initial one.
According to the website of Nicaragua-based Hemco, 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 (1,150 kilograms, 37,000 troy ounces) of gold a year and is Nicaragua's 12th largest exporter.
Associated Press writer Luis Manuel Galeano reported from Managua and Esteban Felix reported from Bonanza. Associated Press writer Olga R. Rodriguez contributed from Mexico City.