6 explorers die in underground tunnel in Canary Islands

Sunday, February 11th 2007, 5:43 pm
By: News On 6

LOS SILOS DE TENERIFE, Canary Islands _ They are narrow, dark and cramped, with few stairs or lights. Authorities warn against venturing inside. But the wonders of the underground tunnels in Spain's Canary Islands are too alluring for many adventurers to resist.

On Saturday, a group of 30 scientists and nature lovers decided to explore the maze of manmade tunnels which were carved out to extract water in the volcanic island of Tenerife off the west coast of Africa. Their guide had canceled but gave them instructions by cell phone before they began their descent.

But when they reached an area more than a mile underground, gases apparently seeped in and cut off their oxygen supply, suffocating six of them, said Jose Andres Garcia, the island's emergency services director.

One person who managed to make it out alerted emergency services, said Jose Miguel Ruano, Tenerife's regional government minister. But it took 17 hours for the bodies of five men and a woman to be pulled from the underground complex, known as Piedra de los Cochinos. Six others were flown by helicopter to a hospital.

Rescue efforts were complicated by the gases and because the tunnels are so cramped, Ruano said. Some are centuries old and have few stairs or lights. The area where the dead were found may have been just three feet in diameter.

Eustaquio Villalba, a spokesman for the Tenerife Friends of Nature Association, said the six likely died by breathing air filled with carbon dioxide.

``It doesn't smell bad or of gas and causes a depletion of what little oxygen is available down there, given there is no ventilation,'' he said.

The group probably got lost because they ventured in without their guide, Villalba added.

Officials discourage exploration of the tunnels, said Jose Segura, an Interior Ministry official. But he said there is almost no way of policing them and adventurers are lured by their beauty, including underground waterfalls. Authorities have erected steel gates to keep people out but some have been broken open.

Heikki Viironen said his daughter Terttu, a Finnish astronomer, was among those who made it out unharmed. Her Spanish companion was hospitalized. The couple found a stray dog that might have helped them find their way out, he told the Finnish news agency STT.

``We thought perhaps the dog's sense of direction saved them,'' Viironen said.

Among the group were scientists from a renowned astrophysics observatory on Tenerife's dormant Teide volcano, Ruano said. Others were members the Tenerife Friends of Nature Association.

An Italian man was among the dead, the Italian foreign ministry said. The Italian news agency said the man lived in Santa Cruz, the capital of Tenerife.

In some parts of the tunnels, humidity can reach 100 percent and temperatures can reach 86 degrees Fahrenheit, Villalba said.

``However, it can be spectacular, with underground waterfalls visible,'' he said.