More than three days of backbreaking labor brought rescuers close to the site where two of 65 trapped coal miners are believed to be located, a federal official said Wednesday.
Whether the two men are dead or alive could provide a clue to the fate of workers trapped deeper inside the Pasta de Conchos mine, federal Labor Secretary Francisco Salazar said.
"These two people will give us an indication of what it is that could have happened," Salazar said Wednesday.
Salazar said the two conveyor belt operators are believed to be less than 54 yards past a wall of debris that rescuers have been trying to break through since Tuesday. The miners were trapped by an underground gas explosion Sunday.
Mine administrator Ruben Escudero told family members that workers had been able to pump additional fresh air into the mine, possibly allowing rescuers to shed their oxygen tanks and work faster without the extra weight.
While the two conveyer belt operators may be just beyond the second wall, most of the others are thought to be as far as three miles from the mine's entrance.
Anguished family members were camping outside the mine gates in the freezing cold on the patch of scrub desert in the state of Coahuila, about 85 miles southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas.
"What we want to know is when they are going to find our family members," said Miguel Arteaga, whose 39-year-old brother, Juan Raul Arteaga, is in the mine. "I'm not leaving here without my brother."
Mine administrators have said that the ventilation system has been pumping some fresh air into the tunnels but that they could not be sure it was reaching the trapped miners.
Mine operators have said each of the 65 men was carrying a tank with only six hours of oxygen supply. They also said there were oxygen tanks scattered throughout the mine.
President Vicente Fox said Wednesday that his government was doing everything possible to rescue the miners.
"I still have hope that everything will turn out okay," he said.
Javier de la Fuente, an engineering contractor with mine owner Grupo Mexico S.A. de C.V., said Tuesday it was too early to declare the miners dead.
Workers were installing wooden and metal supports in four recently dug mine extensions when the gas exploded Sunday. At least a dozen workers near the entrance were able to escape with burns and broken bones.
Mining union representatives have asked for an investigation into the explosion. Mine representatives and federal officials have said the site passed a recent routine inspection this month.