Rain, gas hold up drive to reach 19 trapped miners

BEIJING – Heavy rain complicated rescue efforts on Sunday afternoon as crews worked to free 19 miners trapped deep underground at a coal mine in South China’s Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region.

Zhangcun Coal Mine in Heshan city, Guangxi, was hit by a cave-in on Saturday afternoon that killed three and trapped the others more than 300 meters underground.

Rescuers expressed worries on Sunday that fresh rainfall could cause additional geological hazards or fill the mine with water, Xinhua News Agency reported.

A 20-minute shower on Sunday afternoon made it even harder for rescue crews to clear the mine of sludge and rock and more rain is expected in the coming days, according to weather forecasts.

“The ground has been drenched by continual rain since June 28,” Yang Tiantai, a senior publicity official with Laibin city, which administers Heshan, told Xinhua.

The buildup of water caused the ground above the mine to collapse on Saturday, creating a hole that is more than 30 meters wide and 50 meters deep. About 7,000 cubic meters of earth spewed into the mine during the collapse, said Yang.

“A lot of rainwater mixed with cinders and mud also gushed into the mine through abandoned shafts,” said Zheng Zhao’an, a mine safety expert in Guangxi.

The cave-in was initially thought to have trapped 22 miners on Saturday. Forty-nine others managed to escape. Rescuers later retrieved the bodies of three miners, meaning 19 remain unaccounted for.

On Saturday afternoon, high concentrations of gas prevented rescue workers from using machines to remove debris from the mine, making their advance excruciatingly slow – just 0.5 meters an hour. The rescuers also needed to wear respirators.

“The rescue began to speed up this afternoon,” Huang Xiangxiong, a leading rescuer, said on Sunday.

On Friday, China’s top work safety watchdog ordered local governments to severely crack down on illegal mines and other work sites, to prevent deadly accidents.

It also urged coal mines nationwide to step up their efforts to prevent mine flooding, as the country faced the annual flood season.

The order by the Work Safety Commission of the State Council came after four coal mine floods left at least eight miners dead during the past two weeks in the provinces of Hunan, Liaoning, Anhui and Shandong.

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