EU on brink: Spain issues dire ‘sink or float’ warning to Brussels bloc amid pandemic

The European Union has come under fire over the perceived slow response in helping member states ravaged by the coronavirus protect their economies. Financial leaders from the 27 countries will be asked to consider proposals from Spain for a €1.5trillion (£1.3trillion) investment package to rebuild worst-hit economies. But with the EU27 apparently torn over the issue of how to better respond to the crisis, Brussels has now been warned “either we all sink or we all float.”

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Spanish Foreign Affairs Minister Arancha González Laya defended her government’s proposals, insisting the plan would give the EU a chance to maintain a strong position on the international stage at the end of the crisis.

Speaking to Euronews, Ms González Laya said: “What we need in this crisis is, either we all sink or we all float.

“Spain wants everybody to float, for sure, and this is why what we have done is what every country who wants to help build consensus in Europe would do.

“We put a fiscal proposal on the table, a proposal that is responsible, it builds on existing mechanisms, it’s ambitious.”

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She continued: “What we will have is a huge recovery ahead of us given the damage COVID is causing.

“But it’s also a response that will give us the means that we want to keep Europe as a strong player not only on the world economy but also in world foreign and political affairs.”

At the last Eurogroup meeting held in Brussels earlier this month, eurozone members appeared to partially bridge the gap created by the outbreak after richer northern states rejected suggestions of issuing common debt to help struggling countries.

The bloc agreed to reform the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to keep conditions imposed on countries requesting support to a minimum, thus freeing up €240billion (£211billion) to guarantee spending. 

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The EU27 also agreed to a €500billion (£439billion) rescue package as well to a €200billion (£175billion) in guarantees from the European Investment Bank.

Spain’s proposal comes after the national central bank warned their GDP could suffer a 13.6 percent slump because of the business closures the coronavirus pandemic caused.

And UniCredit Group chief economist Erik Nielsen warned the forecast by the Bank of Spain could still be quite optimistic compared to his.

Speaking to Bloomberg, Mr Nielsen said: “Our forecast for Spain this year is minus 15 percent and about the same for Italy.

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“This is the story of countries in southern Europe that are very dependent on the tourism sector.

“Even if you open up the economy, we think it is unlikely that people will go on holiday this summer to the Mediterranean.

“So there will be a bigger hit there than in northern Europe.

“Northern Europe will see a drop in the range of 8 or 10 percent.

“It is a guess more than anything else, but it seems to be of that magnitude.”

Spain and Italy are the second and third worst-hit members of the eurozone, with both countries now facing the looming threat of recession in addition to preexisting economic struggles leftover from the 2008 global financial crisis and the European debt crisis.

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On Earth Day, calls grow to treat shock of coronavirus with 'green recovery'

LONDON (REUTERS) – As the world marked the 50th anniversary of Earth Day on Wednesday (April 22), calls were growing for governments to treat the shock of the coronavirus with “green recovery” packages to spur a shift to a low-carbon future.

Although many countries remain on a pandemic emergency footing, some investors, politicians and companies see the longer-term economic response as a chance to address the more profound risks posed by climate change.

“There’s a lot of pressure for those fiscal stimulus packages, when they come, to be low-carbon, climate-smart,” Peter Betts, a former lead climate negotiator for Britain and the European Union, told Reuters Television.

“A risk, clearly, is that for some governments around the world there will be a huge premium on getting the economy moving, getting people back into jobs,” said Betts, now an associate fellow at the Chatham House think-tank in London.

With a major UN climate summit initially scheduled to take place in Glasgow in November postponed to next year because of the virus, Betts said the slot could be used instead to convene finance ministers to coordinate green recovery plans.

“With something like climate change we know that it’s coming and know that there are ways we can prepare for it that would be relatively low cost,” he said.

“And what we’re seeing with this pandemic is that if you wait until the crisis hits, the costs are much greater.”

So far, the United States, China, Japan, India and European and other governments have focused on staunching the damage to industry, preserving jobs or trying to avoid corporate failures.

Nevertheless, ministers from Germany, France and other EU members and some other governments have begun to signal their support for aligning subsequent interventions with climate goals, a theme taken up by campaign groups around the world.

On Wednesday, hundreds of climate activists, scientists, singers, and actors begin a three-day EarthDayLive2020 livestream, which will feature webinars on what a fair and climate-friendly recovery could look like.

Although no major economies have yet embraced anything like the rapid decarbonisation that scientists say is needed to stabilise the Earth’s climate, environmental considerations have surfaced in some preliminary stimulus and bailout discussions.

On Tuesday, the European Union’s chief climate official, Frans Timmermans, said green conditions could be tied to any car scrappage schemes set up by the bloc to revive vehicle demand.

Last week, Austrian environment minister Leonore Gewessler said state aid for Austrian Airlines should be conditional on climate measures such as reducing short-haul flights.

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Moscow residents open homes to psychiatric patients, disabled children during lockdown

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Moscow resident Arina Muratova knew something was wrong when the messages she received from Nina, a patient at Psychiatric Hospital No.22 who has become a friend during her voluntary work there, suddenly lost their usual, optimistic ring.

The hospital had gone into a precautionary lockdown, aimed at preventing the spread of the new coronavirus, and Nina, 26, was feeling more confined than ever.

“They were already living in isolation,” Muratova, who has volunteered for three years at the hospital in the city’s Elk Island park, said. “Now their (living space) had been shrunk to a tiny cube.”

Concerned about how fast the coronavirus could spread in the densely populated ward, Muratova decided to use a new government emergency measure allowing people to take residents of state institutions home during the lockdown to get Nina out.

Muratova, a 30-year-old marketing researcher, already had a flatmate, so she moved into temporary accommodation provided by her volunteer group, the Life Route foundation.

Nina, who has spent her life in children’s homes and then the psychiatric hospital, moved in with Muratova the next day.

With Moscow in a partial lockdown, the two women are self-isolating, and as Nina’s disability means she is not considered to have legal status, they are unsure how to register her for a digital pass allowing some excursions outside.

“So right now we are sitting in pretty strict self-isolation. All our groceries are delivered, everything we need is contact-free delivery and we don’t go outside,” Muratova said on a call, adding the plan is to do so at least until July.

“The main thing for me is that I can be with a girl friend here,” Nina, also on the video call, said.

They are cooking together and finding activities for Nina to do, Muratova said, adding that Nina was enjoying having her own space for the first time and being able to take showers alone, rather than in groups.

“UNEXPECTEDLY POSITIVE OUTCOMES”

“All over the country, institutions house hundreds, sometimes thousands of people in one place … If one gets sick with coronavirus, so will everyone else,” Lida Moniava, director of a Moscow children’s hospice, said.

In a call with regional governors on Friday, President Vladimir Putin said if such outbreaks occurred, it was due to a failure of leadership: “Outbreaks, as a rule, occur as a result of our incomplete work. Because we have missed something.”

Last week, a psychiatric hospital in Russia’s northern city of Arkhangelsk reported an outbreak of 79 coronavirus cases. Two facilities housing children with special needs went into lockdown this week in Siberia’s Chelyabinsk region after staff members tested positive for COVID-19, Interfax reported.

“It’s terrifying, but sometimes terrifying situations can produce unexpectedly positive outcomes,” Moniava said, referring to the new government policy.

“Thanks to the coronavirus, an event occurred that is unprecedented in the whole adult and child boarding house system … The doors of these institutions were thrown open.”

Five staff members at Moniava’s Lighthouse Charity Foundation have taken in severely physically disabled children home from two Moscow city orphanages for the quarantine period.

Medical beds rigged with all the necessary equipment to support the children’s breathing and movement were installed in their homes, and the orphanage set up a WhatsApp chat group to provide medical advice and tips to the children’s new hosts.

Moniava said the paperwork granting temporary adoption rights was handled by authorities within a day.

Vica Lobanova, a 28-year-old editor working remotely during Moscow’s lockdown, who offered to share her home with Svetlana, from the same psychiatric ward in Elk Island park, said that in their case the paperwork was more arduous.

Delays brought Svetlana, who knew of the spread of the coronavirus from the news shown on a television in the ward, to tears. With around 100 people on her building’s floor, keeping a safe distance would have been tough.

Now self-isolating in Lobanova’s flat, Svetlana, who has been in institutions since her early teens, spends time playing with Lobanova’s dog and taking online classes.

“I gave Sveta one of my two laptops and it has Zoom and Sveta knows her schedule, puts in the conference number herself,” Lobanova, who also volunteers with Life Route, said, adding that the decision was a straightforward one for her.

“I live alone, I have a one bedroom flat … so I have space,” Lobanova said.

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What are you doing? France lashes out at EU as bloc solidarity crumbles

Brussels expects the bloc to go into a deep recession this year because of the coronavirus outbreak, which has paralysed economic activity across the 27 member states. “We have asked the EU for help but it has not, as yet, responded to all our demands,” Agriculture Minister Didier Guillaume told Europe 1 radio, as he voiced his “disappointment” at the bloc’s failure to take immediate action. Mr Guillaume has repeatedly called on the European Commission, the bloc’s powerful executive arm, to help milk and wine producers who face a surplus of production due to slack demand caused by the health crisis that has cut off vital restaurant and export trade.

French dairy farmers fear the drop in demand will lead to a huge surplus of milk just as the spring gazing season boosts cow’s productivity, with the risk of prices crashing.

“We are in an extraordinary crisis; we need responses that are not ordinary. The Commission, the EU, the European Commissioner must move,” Mr Guillaume warned earlier this month.

At the end of March, 40 million litres of milk – 18 percent of the total volume collected weekly – were in surplus and had to either be redirected towards storage for butter and milk powder or dumped.

Weaker demand and staff absences due to the epidemic have also disrupted factories in the dairy sector and elsewhere in the food industry.

For French wine producers, the loss of demand from shuttered restaurants and disrupted export markets comes on top of punishing US tariffs of 25 percent as part of Washington’s response to illegal EU aircraft subsidies.  

“The wine sector has already suffered a lot with the US taxes,” Mr Guillaume said.

The bloc’s chief agricultural official Janusz Wojciechowski, however, has said that billions of euros in unspent rural development could be diverted to struggling farmers.

The Commission has also proposed to increase cash advances to farmers under the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and give them more time to apply for support.

Member states, however, strongly disagree over how much help should be provided at EU level to counter the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis.

Hard-hit, poorer southern nations such as Italy and Spain have called for the issuance of joint debt; but the richer, fiscally conservative north has urged more restraint in rolling out targeted aid schemes.

The bloc’s industry chief Thierry Breton, for his part, said later on Tuesday that an economic support package to help the EU recover from the crisis could need to be worth around 1.6 trillion euros (£1.4 trillion).

“That sum represents some 10 percent of the EU’s GDP,” Mr Breton told the French news channel BFM TV.

EU officials expect the bloc to go into a deep recession this year because of the deadly outbreak, which has brought economic activity to a virtual halt across the 27 member states.

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Masks reused and bodies mount as Peru strains under coronavirus

LIMA (Reuters) – Peru’s hospitals are straining to deal with a rapid rise in the number of COVID-19 infections, with bodies being kept in hallways, masks being repeatedly reused, and protests breaking out amongst medical workers concerned over their safety.

Peru has the second highest number of cases in South America after Brazil, despite a tough lockdown aimed at halting the spread of the coronavirus.

Confirmed numbers have risen sharply in recent days, passing 17,000 on Tuesday, double the figure from just one week ago. Almost 500 people have died.

“We as a hospital have a capacity for only six bodies,” Deisy Aguirre, leader of the nurses union at the Maria Auxiliadora hospital in Lima, told Reuters outside the hospital on Monday.

“Daily we have been seeing 13 to 16 bodies crowded on the first floor.”

The health ministry says it expects patient numbers to peak within days or in the following week.

On Monday, dozens of health workers protested in front of the Maria Auxiliadora hospital, holding banners decrying a lack of protective equipment such as masks.

A doctor at the protest who declined to give his name provided video showing at least four dead bodies covered in white or black covers in a hospital corridor.

Susana Oshiro, the hospital’s director, told Reuters that at some point the number of dead had exceeded the capacity of the hospital as there was only space for six bodies in the mortuary.

“We have now contracted a freezer, a refrigerated container to store the bodies while they come to collect them for cremation,” she said. The 100-body freezer has been in operation since Monday, she added.

Even the cremation of remains has become an issue, with Lima’s six crematoriums already exceeding capacity.

Edgar González, head of Lima’s Santa Rosa crematorium, told Reuters by telephone that before the pandemic they cremated 10 bodies a day and now they are cremating up to 30.

RECYCLED MASKS

Peru reported its first case of coronavirus on March 6 and it took 25 days to add 1,000 infections. Fourteen days later it reached 10,000 cases, official data show.

The government has also been gradually increasing the amount of tests, which totaled over 155,000 as of Tuesday, one of the highest levels in the region.

In Latin America, only Brazil has more confirmed cases, with over 40,000. Chile is third, with over 10,000.

Rosmini Ayquipa, another nurse from the María Auxiliadora hospital, told Reuters workers had had to wear the same masks for several days due to a shortage.

“We have to use three masks throughout the month, so we re-use and re-use it and what has happened? Where I work, colleagues have caught the disease,” she said.

Oshiro, the hospital director, said the complaint related to N95 type masks, which she said everyone wanted to use but which were only given to personnel involved in the treatment of COVID-19 patients. Everyone else has surgical masks, she said.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says limited re-use of masks is generally acceptable, though not all types of masks can be reused and they should be discarded when “soiled, damaged, or hard to breathe through.”

Reuters could not confirm how many workers had become sick at the María Auxiliadora hospital.

However, Ciro Maguiña, vice dean of the Peruvian Medical College, said 237 doctors nationwide had been infected to date, with nine in intensive care using mechanical respirators. One doctor had died. Those numbers do not include nurses or other health workers.

President Martín Vizcarra has acknowledged that the country’s hospitals are already close to capacity. He has taken steps to increase intensive care units and the number of hospital beds.

“In the next few days we are going to have an increase in the capacity of care with ventilators arriving,” he said in a news conference on Monday.

For a graphic on coronavirus cases worldwide open in a browser: here

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Spain expects initial EU consensus on coronavirus aid at Thursday summit

MADRID (Reuters) – The European Union (EU) council should reach an initial consensus on the common financial response to the coronavirus pandemic during its next summit on Thursday, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said.

“I expect the European Council tomorrow will reach a first consensus because it is indispensable,” Sanchez told parliament on Wednesday.

Spain has proposed the creation of a fund of up to 1.5 trillion euros ($1.63 trillion) financed by perpetual debt.

Sanchez added he wants the Eurogroup short-term coronavirus economic package that was agreed upon on April 9 to be implemented by June 1.

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UK weather warning: Saharan dust to crash into UK TODAY – Latest forecast MAP

Each year many Britons are confounded by the presence of red-coloured dirt on their cars and windows. Hot weather over the past few weeks, including the Easter weekend, brought not only scorching temperatures but also a dumping of dust from the Saharan desert.

What is Saharan dust and how does it reach the UK?

Saharan dust is a mixture of sand and dust from the Sahara, which is the vast desert area covering most of North Africa.

According to the Met Office, winds can blow very intensely over deserts, leading to dust and sand whipping high into the sky.

If the winds in the upper part of the atmosphere are blowing north, this dust can be carried as far as the UK.

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Once the Saharan dust is lifted from the ground by strong winds, clouds of dust can reach extremely high altitudes and be transported worldwide covering thousands of miles.

For the dust to drop from the sky to the ground, rain is needed.

As raindrops fall, they collect particles of dust on its way down and therefore when the raindrops land they can leave behind a layer of dust.

This Saharan dust rain is also dubbed “blood rain” due to its hue and is a fairly common occurrence in the UK as several times throughout the year large dust storms in the Sahara coincide with southerly wind patterns.

When is Saharan dust predicted to hit the UK today?

An ongoing progressive pattern over southern Europe and the Mediterranean against the powerful and extensive upper ridge over northern Europe and the Arctic region is forecast to lead to reversed flow between the two areas.

This flow is expected to favour an advection of Saharan dust load from Northern Africa into the Mediterranean, central and northern Europe.

Specifically, weather forecasters have issued warnings for France, England and Ireland which are expected to be battered by the dust load on Wednesday.

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Through Wednesday evening, its position of the upper ridge and lows over Europe shows the air mass and its related dust load over the Mediterranean curves northwestwards over the Alps towards western Europe.

The dust load maps from SKIRON show how dust particles are spread across central Europe on Tuesday, moving westwards into southern France.

As a more southeasterly flow on Tuesday, the advection should spread the dust also towards western Europe.

The Saharan dust continued its movement, hitting England and Ireland on Wednesday.

How does Saharan dust impact people?

Saharan dust can impact air pollution levels.

This can cause significant problems for people who suffer from respiratory issues or heart problems.

Heavy dust can also cause sore throats and eyes.

Experts advise those with lung or heart disease to take extra steps to protect themselves when Saharan dust hits.

While Saharan dust can be damaging for humans, it can prove beneficial for the environment.

In the Amazon rainforest, trees and plants rely on nutrient-rich dust as it helps to keep areas fertile.

However, some researchers claim the Saharan dust has been linked to coral disease in the Caribbean.

Dust clouds can also turn the sea from blue to reddish brow which encourages the growth of algae blooms known as red tides.

These algae blooms have been known to cause the deaths of large numbers of marine animals, fish and birds in the past.

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Guatemala health officials fired, investigated for corruption

Several officials are accused of conspiring to defraud state funds during the coronavirus pandemic.

Two deputy health ministers in Guatemala were fired this week amid revelations of an alleged corruption ring inside the ministry.

Rodolfo Galdamez, the technical deputy minister of health, and Hector Marroquin, the administrative deputy minister of health, were fired Monday, according to officials.

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Eight health officials conspired to defraud state funds during the coronavirus pandemic, according to the presidential commission against corruption. The commission filed its findings Monday with the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Bureau. It was unclear whether Galdamez and Marroquin were among the eight investigated by the commission. No officials were named.

Neither Marroquin nor Galdamez immediately commented on their removal.

A spokesperson for the Ministry of Health told Al Jazeera that because the issue is under criminal investigation, no further details can be confirmed.

The names of the alleged perpetrators were not released, but presidential anti-corruption commissioner Oscar Davila noted the group of eight included officials removed from office.

“A structure was identified inside the Ministry of Public Health that tried to join forces to commit fraud against the interests of the state in these times when funds must be strictly monitored,” Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei said Monday.

“We are not going to tolerate corruption. We are not going to permit anyone to steal one cent, and less so in the middle of a crisis,” he said.

Guatemala has confirmed 294 cases of the novel coronavirus, including 50 cases of Guatemalans deported by the United States. Seven people have died.

The country confirmed its first coronavirus case on March 13. Less than a week later, the ring of top-level health officials allegedly engaged in criminal activity related to the adjudication of two public contracts for medication purchases.

“These events began on March 18 of this year,” Davila told reporters Monday at the prosecutor’s office, adding that the commission began investigating the following day.

The presidential commission against corruption was established by Giammattei shortly after he took office in January, four months after his predecessor shut down a prominent United Nations-backed international anti-impunity commission.

“For us, it is very important to have a presidential commission that focuses on these issues,” presidential spokesman Carlos Sandoval told Al Jazeera.

“It permits us to maintain a transparent and especially honest endeavour in these times, when the population needs officials who properly utilise the resources of Guatemalans,” he said.

Deposed deputy health minister Galdamez is the subject of a separate criminal investigation into alleged corruption, the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Bureau announced Monday, acknowledging a media report that prompted the investigation.

The report, published on Saturday by Plaza Publica, an online Guatemalan publication, revealed that Galdamez benefitted from public contracts while in office, which is prohibited by law.

Calls for health minister’s dismissal

Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordan Rodas, formally requested the removal of Health Minister Hugo Monroy from office. By law, the ombudsman may request the suspension or removal of officials in some circumstances.

“Over the course of the COVID-19 crisis, the poor management of the portfolio has become evident,” Rodas told Al Jazeera.

The new allegations of corruption are just one factor, he said. There has been a slow pace in the decentralisation of coronavirus testing, and “a lack of agility in the administrative processes to provide medical and paramedic personnel with optimum equipment,” said Rodas.

“We need new professionals at the helm of the ministry in the midst of a crisis,” he said.

Edie Cux, a lawyer and president of Accion Ciudadana, an anti-corruption citizen action group, said “what is truly concerning is how the Ministry of Health is managing the crisis.”

Cux told Al Jazeera that “more than whether or not an official is ousted, what is worrisome is the top-down way things are being managed.”

Information and crisis management is top-down and centralised in the president and health minister, and there is little evidence of teamwork or collaboration across government agencies, said Cux.

“The president might be very capable and all, but he is not Superman,” he said.

“There need to be teams of experts and officials who can adequately address the crisis,” said Cuz. “And in that vein arises the issue of what kinds of appointments the health minister has been making.”

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Fire that started in Rocky View County spreads to Calgary

A grass fire that started in Rocky View County on Tuesday afternoon spread south into Calgary city limits, with crews from both places responding.

The Calgary Fire Department said three of its trucks responded to the 16500 block of Panorama Road N.W. in the afternoon but could not provide a time frame.

“We had reports of a power line down, which sparked a small fire,” said Capt. Paul Attenborough from the Balzac Fire Station.

About 60 acres burned, including the stubble field it started in, Attenborough said.

“It’s heavy bush in there and it’s a deep-seated fire and we got many crews operating right now,” he said.

“It’s going to be a long night.”

The CFD said the wind blew the fire toward a farmyard with many trees, adding that crews were “protecting the farmhouse.”

The CFD received multiple calls about the fire, with people saying it was spreading quickly.

“Things are bone dry with this wind right now and it’s rocking pretty quickly,” Attenborough explained.

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Stranded elk rescued after dropping 30-feet into old mine shaft

Two hikers in Mineral County discovered an elk stranded at the bottom of a 30-foot mine-shaft, and state wildlife staff and sheriff’s deputies rescued the fallen beast.

The odd discovery and rescue, in the upper Grande Valley near Creede, happened on Saturday and rescuers used a nearby four-wheel driver trail, and a vehicle with a wench, to hoist the 250-pound cow elk out of the partially collapsed, abandoned mine shaft, according to a Colorado Parks and Wildlife news release.

Chere Waters, of Creede, and a hiking companion were on a trail off the Bachelor Loop Road when they decided to check out a mine shaft opening Waters had seen years ago.

“I don’t know what it was, but something was drawing me to go up there,” Waters said in the release. The pair walked about a mile from their parked vehicle to the hole, and Waters tossed a rock down the opening from a safe distance.

Still curious about the hole and its depth, Waters “belly crawled” along the ground and her friend, slightly behind, held onto her ankles so she could peer over the edge.

“So I looked in and see this animal in there,” Waters said. “I was so surprised, I couldn’t believe it.”

They called the Mineral County Sheriff’s Office  and Wildlife Officers Brent Woodward and Jeremy Gallegos arrived along with Mineral County deputies.

“When I got the call I was told that a deer was stuck in a hole,” Woodward said. “But they thought the shaft was only about 10-feet deep. When I got there I could see it was an elk and it was probably 30-feet down.”

Woodward tranquilized the elk from above, and Terry Wetherill, Mineral County emergency and search rescue manager, was lowered into the hole using a truck winch. Straps were attached to the elk and it was hoisted out.

Over the years, Wetherill has pulled deer and elk out of fencing, he said, “but I’ve never had to pull one out of a hole.”

Creede and the surrounding area boomed in the late 1800s with silver mines. Most old mine shafts have collapsed and filled in over the years. The hole the elk fell into likely has been there for more than 100 years.

“It’s dangerous, it’s in the shadows and until you’re 20-feet away you don’t see it,” Wetherill said in the release.

Mineral County and Rio Grande National Forest officials have been asked to determine ownership so the shaft can be filled or covered as a safety measure.

The elk was rescued it was “pretty beat up”  by the fall, Woodward said. It may have been stranded for two or three days.

The elk was examined on scene and Gallegos then administered a drug to counteract the tranquilizer. In a few minutes the elk stood on shaky legs and took off.

“When she stood up, she moved a few yards, turned and looked at us for a few seconds and then turned and trotted away. It was great that we could get her out alive,” Woodward said.

Waters and her friend stayed for the rescue and took photos. For her part, Waters felt as if she’d been guided to the shaft by an unseen power. “I was just so called to go to that place.”

 

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