NORTH SULAWESI, INDONESIA (AFP) - At least seven people have died and dozens more are still trapped beneath the rubble of an illegal gold mine that collapsed in Indonesia, officials said Thursday (Feb 28), as rescuers frantically searched for survivors.
Some 19 miners had been plucked to safety since Tuesday night's accident and rescuers are communicating with some still buried, raising hopes for more survivors.
But the rescue effort at the remote site on Indonesia's Sulawesi island was hampered by steep terrain and unstable soil conditions after the collapse triggered a landslide.
A survivor whose leg was amputated at the site Thursday later died of massive blood loss, bringing the death toll to seven.
"His condition was already bad and he had lost a lot of blood," said local disaster agency official Abdul Muin Paputungan.
"He died after we managed to evacuate him from the scene." Medical personnel removed the man's limb because it was pinned underneath a large rock, making it impossible to free him without emergency on-site surgery.
"We're racing against time," Paputungan said of the search for survivors.
"The rescue is ongoing but it's risky... We've heard at least three people asking for help and we're trying to pull them out and supply them with water and food so they can survive."
Army and disaster agency personnel used ropes to navigate the steep, muddy area as survivors were carried away in makeshift stretchers to waiting vehicles.
Some have been treated for cuts and broken bones at a local hospital.
Survivor Rusdi Tulong said he was just two metres below ground when mud and stone smothered the exit of the mine shaft, trapping him and two others for a day and a night.
"We were praying, reciting the Koran ... (and) screaming for help," the shell-shocked miner told AFP from his hospital bed in Kotamobagu city.
"We could still breathe because there were gaps between the rocks." Many of the miners' family members gathered at the site desperate to help in the search, while others broke down in tears at the morgue in Kotamobagu.
Amrin Simbala, the father of a trapped miner, said he had spoken with his son who was buried beneath a mound of rocks.
"He asked for water because he was thirsty. But how could I get the water in?" an emotional Simbala told AFP.
"Later in the afternoon, no more voices could be heard." .
Many still trapped
With heavy machinery on standby, rescuers so far have been forced to use spades and even their bare hands to clear away debris, fearing that a wrong move could make the situation worse.
"We've had to limit the number of rescuers because there's been more cracks at the location... so we're afraid if there are too many people it will make things more dangerous," Paputungan said.
The accident happened when support beams at the unlicensed site collapsed, according to the disaster agency.
More than three dozen people may still be trapped at the mine in the Bolaang Mongondow region of North Sulawesi, where some five miners were killed in December after an illegal gold mine accident.
But it remained unclear how many people were still in the mine.
"The figures are not consistent based on survivors' accounts," district head Yasti Soepradjo said. "We're still in the dark about the exact number."
Ground conditions at the mine were unstable due to the large number of holes dug by the miners, officials have said.
The mineral-rich South-east Asian nation has scores of unlicensed mining sites and safety regulations are routinely flouted.
In 2016, 11 miners died after a mudslide engulfed an illegal gold mine in Sumatra's Jambi province.
A year earlier, 12 people were killed when a shaft collapsed after they tunnelled into a disused gold mine on Java island.