Sunday, February 11, 2007

Six dead in cavern on Tenerife

Entrance to the gallery at Piedra de los Cochinos

Agence France-Presse report that fifteen people were trapped underground in a shaft on the Spanish island of Tenerife and rescuers were having difficulty evacuating them. The shaft, known as the "Piedra de los Cochinos" or Pig's Stone is in the locality of Los Silos, on the north of Tenerife. Civil Guard mountain rescue teams were mobilized to the scene.

Rescuers, although awaiting the recuperation of the last body, have confirmed the death of six people, due to lack of oxygen and inhalation of volcanic gasses, who were trapped "by error" in the Piedra de los Cochinos shaft. The six, five men and one woman, were part of a group of 30, including scientists and members of a nature organization, who entered the gallery on Saturday.

Rescue teams had not been able to reach the point where these persons were trapped, some 2,000 meters from the entrance to the gallery, although they had tried to get oxygen to them. During the night and early morning, Civil Guard rescued 23 of the 30, who had been trapped for close to 16 hours. Underwater teams with oxygen supplies reached those, 1,200 and 1,400 meters inside the gallery.

Six others, with breathing difficulties, were taken to hospital by helicopter. Three of those rescued, two women and a man, are in a serious condition.

Civil Guard, fire services, Red Cross and a helicopter from the Government Emergency Services have all been deployed in the rescue, which is in an area with already difficult access. At the gallery site, there is no mobile phone coverage, making it difficult for different rescue teams to remain in contact.

The two groups on the excursion, among whom are both Spanish and foreign scientists, from the Canarian Astrophysics Institute (IAC) and the Tenerife Association of Friends of Nature (ATAN), who were walking the route from Erjos - Cuevas Negras - Los Silos, in the Teno Rural Park on Saturday.

The brother of one of the party indicted that the walkers were accompanied by three guides, however the person who knew the area best had been unable to go on the trip. It had been explained to them by phone how to find the tunnel that connects the two gorges in which they were lost, nevertheless, the walkers made a mistake and entered the water gallery known as Piedra de los Cochinos instead.

The alarm was raised at around 16:45 on Saturday, when one of the party managed to escape, after they had entered the gallery at around 14:00 and an hour later began to faint. When they regained consciousness, they began their attempts to get out.

The 1.9 m high and 1.8 meter wide Piedra de los Cochinos water gallery, which was opened around 200 years ago and closed in 1964, is within the Monte del Agua - one of the largest laurisilva (subtropical cloud forests) in the Canary Islands - between Erjos and Los Silos. Access to the area is via Las Portelas - where a rescue coordination center has been set up - here in the El Palmar valley.

This is not the first accident to have occurred in the area, where there are various footpaths and walkers mistake the galleries for tunnels.

Balance at the end of a sad day in Tenerife

After the last of the six bodies had been recovered from the Piedra de los Cochinos gallery Sunday afternoon, the rescue helicopter passed over the house for the last time to land at the Finca Los Pedregales complex here in El Palmar, where emergency services had set up a temporary base.

The six dead have now been identified as being five Spanish nationals; four men and one woman and, one Italian male, all between the ages of just 22 and 36.

The town halls in Buenavista del Norte and Los Silos called emergency meetings Sunday and have declared three days of mourning in the district for the dead.

According to agency and TV reports, one of the six survivors who had needed to be taken to hospital by helicopter, has been discharged, however, another's situation had worsened. Two remain in a serious condition with symptoms of muscular destruction from having been in a fixed position for such a length of time, but are not in danger.

The rescue helicopters, as well as fire engines, Civil Guard vehicles and ambulances had been buzzing thorough the valley for most of the almost 24 hours it took to complete the difficult rescue operation. The coordination point on the entrance to the single track road which leads to the Monte del Agua, was actually my friends' house, so you can see how rather "close to home" this tragic event has been.

As Los Silos mayor, Santiago Martín, observed, this beautiful area deserves to be on the front pages of the world's media also for other [better] motives.