Santander de Quilichao, Colombia - Relatives of 13 miners buried by a landslide kept vigil Friday near an unlicensed mine in western Colombia, as they clung to meager hope that their loved ones could have survived.
The bodies of three miners were recovered at the illegal gold mine Thursday, but 13 other workers were still missing and feared dead.
Anguished relatives looked on from behind a security perimeter as a half-dozen backhoes clawed at the earth to try to get to the missing.
“I'm waiting for them to retrieve my brother and his wife, who are buried below,” said one miner at the site.
Rescuers said Friday they believe they have located the bodies, some 30 meters below the surface, and said they were aided in their search by sniffer dogs.
Earlier estimates said that as many as 30 people had been buried in the mudslide, but it now appears that fewer miners than originally feared may have been caught.
Those who were unlucky enough to be trapped have virtually no chance of surviving, official said.
“It is hard to imagine that we'll find survivors, given that about 10 tons of earth fell on the victims,” local rescue coordinator Graciela Tovar told AFP.
The accident happened at a mine outside the city of Santander de Quilichao, where independent mine workers were excavating without authorization.
The avalanche of mud, rock, and earth slid into the cavernous earthen pit Wednesday night into Thursday as the workers labored with hand tools to extract gold at the site.
The mine employed local men and women, sometimes from the same families, but neither the workers nor the facility were properly credentialed, officials said.
Colombia has more than 14,000 mines, more than half of which operate without proper permits, officials said. The government even has confiscated heavy excavation equipment at some illegal sites.
At any given time about 400 people worked as freelance gold miners, keeping part of whatever gold they were able to find, but most of their find going to the mine owners.
Mining Minister Amylkar Acosta said authorities suspect the mine also had ties to organized crime, adding that the government had created a special military unit to try to wipe out illegal mining.
It was the second mining accident in Colombia in less than a week.
Last Saturday in the northwestern department of Antioquia, four miners died from inhaling toxic gas in an unlicensed mine.
Rather than use their own equipment to try rescue the missing, the owners of the mine hid it to keep it from being seized because the operation has no permit, Acosta said.