Hopes of saving three missing miners dwindled on Wednesday as rescuers said it could take days to reach them in a coal mine where 107 died in the Russian Federation’s worst mine disaster since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union.
On President Vladimir Putin’s orders, flags were flying at half-mast across Russia and television entertainment programmes were cancelled in a day of mourning for the dead in the mine disaster and a spate of other fatal accidents.
Rescuers at the Ulyanovskaya mine in Siberia’s Kemerovo region said they had not given up hope of finding the three miners alive but chances were now slim, 48 hours after a massive gas explosion swept through the pit.
The only place they could be is near the epicentre of Monday’s explosion, and those sections of the mine are now so badly flooded that divers were called in to search.
”Unfortunately the situation we are facing with flooding and gas contamination will demand much more time,” said Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu on the Rossiya television channel. ”It could take up to three days.”
The first three victims were being buried on Wednesday around the region, a blue-collar area 3 500km east of Moscow that is the heartland of Russia’s hazardous but lucrative coal industry.
The regional administration named the three to be buried as mining specialist Vladimir Kiselyov and mine workers Konstantin Zenchev and Konstantin Chernenkov.
Elsewhere, pathologists were continuing the grim task of identifying the bodies, many of which were disfigured in the explosion.
Officials said failure to follow safety rules was the most likely cause of the disaster. The Prosecutor General’s office said a criminal case had been opened for manslaughter as a result of safety breaches.
The dead included almost all the mine’s managers, who were underground on a tour of inspection, and a British contractor.
The mine disaster was the deadliest in a four-day run of fatal accidents in Russia.
A fire at a retirement home in southern Russia early on Tuesday killed 62 people, many of them bedridden patients. An ageing Soviet-built jet crash-landed on Saturday, killing six people.
Putin on Tuesday ordered Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov to set up an urgent inquiry into all three.
Accidents in Russia’s often-antiquated mines are frequent, but the Ulyanovskaya complex was only opened in 2002.
The mine belongs to Yuzhkuzbassugol, Russia’s largest underground coal-mining firm, which is 50% owned by the country’s number-two steelmaker, Evraz. — Reuters
Additional reporting by Vera Kalian in Moscow