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 communicated with emergency crews.
Teams with dogs helped locate the 20 miners, who are inside a kind of cave in the mine, but authorities have not yet been able to get them out, said Alexander Alvarado, mayor of the town of Bonanza, located about 260 miles (420 kilometers) northeast of Managua.
Alvarado said that the 20 have been able to communicate with rescue workers who have gotten near the area where the miners are trapped. He said they didn't know the whereabouts of the other four.
Alvarado said rescue workers have lined up several wooden ladders along a 200-foot long tunnel that cuts upward into the mountain and are close to reaching the area where the miners are trapped. The mine bores into the side of a mountain and was covered by a landslide on Thursday.
"In a few minutes it will be possible to bring them food and water," Alvarado said.
Miners and residents near the El Comal gold and silver mine in Bonanza have joined the rescue crews to try to reach the trapped miners, said commander Javier Amaya of the rescue team.
"We have organized a rescue plan. Every 15 minutes a group of five or 10 miners will enter the mine on wooden ladders, tying themselves off and going in until they reach them," said Amaya.
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 until late Thursday after the mine lost contact with the workers, who are believed to be about 165 feet (50 meters) below the surface. There were originally 26 miners underground but two were rescued.
Relatives of the trapped miners gathered Friday on the margins of the rescue operation. Friends held up Margarita Mendez, who looked like she was going to faint as she awaited news about her son, Salvador Urbina.
"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.