SAN JUAN DE SABINAS, Mexico, Feb 23 (Reuters) Angry relatives of 65 workers trapped inside a Mexican coal mine accused the company of negligence as rescuers inched slowly toward the men, hoping they were still alive.
Making agonizingly slow progress, rescue teams were nearing the spot where two of the trapped miners had been when a gas explosion ripped through the mine and collapsed tunnels early on Sunday.
''They are advancing, we think we are about 10 to 15 meters away,'' said Antonio Rodriguez yesterday, a miner helping with the digging.
''It's possible they will make it tonight,'' he said after emerging from the pit.
Labour Minister Francisco Salazar said rescuers hoped to reach the two trapped men within hours and that they would then have a better idea of whether the others were still alive.
''Once we find people, we'll know two key things: the impact and the size of the explosion, and the amount of oxygen in the air that they had to breathe, to see what chance we have of getting out those that are much deeper in the mine,'' he said.
There has been no contact with the trapped miners since the explosion and they only had six hours worth of oxygen in their tanks. But rescue teams believe they could still be alive if they are near an air pocket or if ventilation units are still pushing air into areas where they are trapped.
RELATIVES WAIT At the gates of the Pasta de Conchos mine in the northern state of Coahuila, families exhausted by the long wait prayed and sang hymns. They accused mine owners and even union leaders of ignoring repeated safety warnings.
''They're not the ones who go down there so they don't give a damn,'' wailed Laura Calzoncit, whose uncle was one of the 65 men trapped inside the deep coal shafts.
''This is too much, we don't believe what they are telling us. It is pure lies,'' she cried, hugging her mother by a smoldering fire.
In a dusty cemetery a few kilometers away, workers dug fresh graves.
''We usually have eight or 10 tombs ready but we are preparing more in case they are needed,'' said owner Aaron Cardenas. ''We have experience with past explosions and we want to be prepared.'' Raul Alvarez used to work in the mine and said he left because conditions were terrible. He spent two days without sleep at the main gate, waiting for word on the fate of a brother and two brothers-in-law.
''This was a time bomb,'' he said of the mine, where workers earn about 60 dollars a week.
One miner who survived Sunday's blast was released from hospital and said he would not go back to work at the mine because of the poor conditions there.
The rescue teams are using picks and shovels to dig their way through collapsed rocks and dirt to reach the men. As they move deeper into the mine, they have to reinforce the tunnels to prevent further collapses, slowing their advance.
The mine is owned by Grupo Mexico, which has denied union charges of negligence and insists it is doing everything possible to rescue the men. A team of US experts arrived yesterday to provide technical help.
''I feel desperate. There are a lot of people working but I don't think they know what they're doing ... They need better equipment,'' said Maria Teresa Contreras, 30, who has spent the last four days at the mine gate, weeping and awaiting news of her missing husband.
REUTERS CS SP1104