Rescuers temporarily suspended the search for 65 trapped Mexican coal miners after five backbreaking days of digging because of toxic gas levels, as miners' desperate families screamed "you're abandoning us."
The announcement came hours after government officials and company representatives said that it looked increasingly unlikely that any of the trapped miners had survived.
"We can't risk more lives," said Xavier Garcia, president of Industrial Minera Mexico, a subsidiary of mining company Grupo Mexico SA de CV. "We can't risk another explosion with people inside. We are making our best effort with our heart in our hand to resolve this problem."
Mine operators said late on Friday the search will be halted while machines pump out methane gas and improve the air quality in the Pasta de Conchos mine, where a pre-dawn explosion on Feb. 19 brought down thousands of tonnes of rubble and filled tunnels with toxic gas.
"This decision was made carefully in the interest of protecting the rescue crews," said Arturo Bermea, director general of mine owner Industrial Minera Mexico. He said US mine experts also recommended rescue efforts be halted until gas levels were lowered.
Crews were expected to return in two to three days, he said.
The news outraged families and friends who yelled "you're abandoning us" from their makeshift camp outside the mine's gates.
A group of women attacked company executives and government officials, pulling on the men's clothing and screaming. Two women were taken away on stretchers, kicking and screaming, while the executives and officials were escorted away by police.
Officials said the levels of toxic gas were increasing as rescuers advanced deeper into the mine and that hopes were dim that the miners had survived.
"Only a miracle could save them," Mexican Labor Secretary Francisco Salazar told reporters and family members who have camped out for five winter nights outside the gates of the mine, 135km southwest of Eagle Pass, Texas.
Hundreds of rescue workers, most of whom are miners themselves, had advanced 800m inside the 2.8km-long mine, to an area where as many as 26 miners were believed to be trapped.
But mine administrator Ruben Escudero said there was no sign of them, which he said meant they either had been buried under debris or were in a different part of the mine.
Mexican scientists working with 10 visiting experts from the US Mine Safety and Health Administration said that because of high levels of toxic gas, no one working in that section could have survived.
Laura Silva, the wife of a trapped miner, said the company should have lowered the gas levels from the first day.
"The company doesn't care about our husbands," she said.
Teresa Contreras, 30, another wife of a trapped miner, however, said she didn't want more tragedies.
"I want to see my husband," she said. "I know he's alive. But my pain is not reason enough to endanger more human beings who have children at home."
The Vatican sent a message to Bishop Alonso Gerardo Garza Trevino of the nearby community of Piedras Negras, saying Pope Benedict XVI was praying for the miners and their families.
"The Holy Father has a special affection for miners and their families," the message stated.