An explosion likely caused by a methane gas buildup ripped through an underground coal mine in Colombia during a shift change Wednesday, killing 21 workers, officials said. A similar fatal blast occurred at the same mine four years ago.
Five of the victims died at the mine's entrance and by afternoon two bodies had been removed from the mine with another 14 left to recover, said the provincial Colombian Red Cross director, Johel Enrique Rodriguez.
He told The Associated Press that rescuers had seen the rest of the bodies, which he said were covered in burns and scattered throughout the kilometer-long (0.6 mile-long) tunnel that extended horizontally beneath a verdant mountain.
Gabriel Tamayo, manager of the La Preciosa mine in Sardinata, 255 miles (410 kilometers) northeast of the capital, Bogota, would not speculate on the cause.
But Colombian Red Cross rescue chief Carlos Ivan Marquez said preliminary indications pointed to a methane gas buildup.
Such a blast "is like a kind of cannon shot and creates a flame within the mine and obviously has tragic consequences," William Villamizar, governor of the Norte de Santander province, where the mine is located, told RCN radio.
Officials said the explosion happened just before 7 a.m. during a shift change.
"I refuse to work here any longer," miner Luis Chacon told RCN television at the scene. He called La Preciosa "a killer mine."
The mine met legal safety requirements, said Edgar Fabian Morales, national safety coordinator for the Colombian Institute of Geology and Mining.
But the Ministry of Mining and Energy said it would be shut down, at least temporarily, and Mining Minister Carlos Rodado went to La Preciosa to meet with its managers and victims' families.
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