Hopes were fading on Monday of finding alive any of the 58 miners still trapped deep inside Russia’s largest underground coal mine, two days after double methane gas blasts that killed 32 people.
Rescuers were making a desperate final effort to find survivors at the Raspadskaya mine but tragically only recovered the corpses of 19 fellow salvage workers who went into the mine to search for survivors.
The mine in the Kemerovo region in south-west Siberia was hit by a blast late on Saturday while 370 people were working in the shaft and then a second explosion hit hours later when rescue workers had already gone inside.
“The corpses of all the rescue workers have been brought to the surface. There are now only 58 miners inside the mine,” the Emergencies Ministry said in a statement on its website, confirming the death toll had risen to 32.
“There is less and less hope in the search for survivors,” admitted Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu, according to the Interfax news agency.
But President Dmitry Medvedev ordered that all rescue efforts be continued “until we get to the truth about how this happened and are sure that all rescue measures that were possible in this situation have been taken”.
But other sources expressed scepticism about the search effort.
“Everyone understands the chances of finding someone alive are practically zero,” Interfax quoted a source close to the rescue effort as saying. “Since Sunday we have just been hoping for a miracle.”
A unnamed miner who survived the blast told Moscow Echo radio: “They were late in pumping air into the shafts. They will only carry out corpses now.”
The missing men were trapped about 490m deep in the shafts at the Raspadskaya mine, said Vladimir Goryachkin, the deputy general director of the mine’s owner, quoted by Russian agencies.
The mine has more than 400km of tunnels, a bigger network than the entire Moscow metro, he said. Television pictures showed that the surface infrastructure had been wrecked by the power of the blasts.
A dozen miners were confirmed dead in the initial blast. Rescue work then had to be halted throughout Sunday with officials saying the mine was so dangerous that sending people in would be a virtual death sentence.
Shoigu said salvage work was continuing on Monday but admitted it was hampered by poor air in the shaft. Rescuers had to limit oxygen flows to the mine against the risk of further explosions, he said.
Loved ones of the miners waited in tears and agony outside the mine’s management offices in the town of Mezhdurechensk where a list of the missing had been pinned up.
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin on Monday ordered compensation of $32 900 to the families of victims killed in the blast and smaller payments to those injured in the tragedy, the government said.
Shoigu said it appeared the explosions had been triggered by a combination of coal dust and gas but warned it would take time to discover the exact cause. “The damage is colossal,” he noted.
A criminal investigation has been launched for negligence of security rules but Goryachkin insisted readings showed accepted methane concentration levels in the shafts at the time of the blast.
“At present, there could be many different versions of the cause,” he said.
Raspadskaya is part-owned by steelmaker Evraz, a company 36%-owned by Chelsea Football Club’s billionaire chief, Roman Abramovich. The governor of the Kemerovo region, Aman Tuleyev, insisted that the mine would be rebuilt.
Deadly mine accidents are relatively common in Russia because of ageing infrastructure, violations of ventilation safety requirements and tampering with gas-level monitoring equipment.
Russia has been blighted in the past few years by catastrophes at key facilities, most notably a flood at Russia’s largest hydroelectric plant in August that killed 75 people. — AFP