- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 8, 2010

UPDATED:

MOSCOW (AP) — Rescue workers scrambled Sunday to save 83 people trapped in Russia’s largest underground coal mine after two explosions killed at least 12 people and injured dozens more, officials said. Among those trapped were rescue workers who entered the Siberian mine after the first blast.

The second, more powerful explosion destroyed the main air shaft and all of the mine’s above-ground structures, the governor of the Siberian region of Kemerovo told Prime Minister Vladimir Putin during a meeting with emergency officials, according to a government transcript.

No more rescue workers would be sent into the mine until the methane was pumped out for fear of further explosions, Gov. Aman Tuleyev said.

More than 500 emergency workers from around the country struggled throughout the day to ventilate the mine and rebuild mine shafts so the search for those trapped could resume, said Valery Korchagin, spokesman for the Emergency Ministry in Kemerovo, about 2,000 miles east of Moscow.

By late Sunday, it was still too dangerous to enter the mine because of high levels of methane gas, said Emergency Minister Sergei Shoigu, who flew to the scene from Moscow to take charge of the operation. “Now we have to do everything possible to avoid a third explosion,” the state news agency RIA Novosti quoted him as telling miners’ families.

Mr. Shoigu promised to send in the first group of rescuers as soon as the slightest opportunity appeared. It was unclear how soon this was expected. He said emergency workers had identified two areas where those trapped were most likely to be.

The first blast, believed to have been caused by methane, hit the Raspadskaya mine just before midnight Saturday and the second about 3 hours later. There were 359 workers below ground at the time of the first explosion, the Emergency Ministry said. A total of 58 people were injured.

Most managed to get out, but after the second blast, 64 miners and 19 rescue workers were trapped underground, and all communication with them was lost, Mr. Shoigu said earlier during the meeting with Mr. Putin, parts of which were televised.

“It’s clear the situation is difficult,” Mr. Putin said “We could even say very difficult, tragic. Dozens of people remain in the mine… . Their fate is unknown, and the saddest thing is that additional rescuers cannot be sent into the mine right away.”

He ordered emergency workers to use all means available to ventilate the mine as quickly as possible.

The mine is 1,650 feet deep and has 220 miles of underground tunnels, Mr. Tuleyev said.

The Raspadskaya mine produces about 8 million tons of coal a year, according to the company’s website.

There was no immediate information on what set off the blast. Mine explosions and other industrial accidents are common in Russia and other former Soviet republics, and they often are blamed on inadequate implementation of safety precautions by companies or by workers themselves.

In December, nine people were killed in an explosion at an iron-ore mine in the Urals Mountains region that was blamed on faulty transportation of explosives.

The deadliest explosion in Russia’s coal mines in decades occurred in March 2007, when 110 miners were killed in Kemerovo.

The United States was hit with its worst coal mining disaster in 40 years when 29 miners died April 5 in an explosion at a West Virginia mine.

In China, where the mining industry is the world’s deadliest, at least 33 miners died after a mine flooded on March 28. The flood trapped 153 miners, but most eventually were rescued.

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