Mine blast kills 63 in Ukraine mine blast

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The Independent Online
DONETSK (Reuters) - A gas explosion killed 63 Ukrainian coal miners in Donetsk, officials confirmed yesterday after rescue workers found the bodies of about 30 men trapped below ground. The blast was one of the country's worst mining disasters.

By mid-afternoon yesterday rescue teams had almost completed the laborious and dangerous task of bringing bodies to the surface from a collapsed seam at the city's Skochinsky mine.

About 600 men were at work when the blast ripped through the pit on Saturday morning. A union official said the toll was especially heavy as it occurred as the shifts were changing. An alarm signal warning of high methane levels was triggered half an hour before the explosion, shutting off electric power to avoid sparks in part of the mine. But there had been no call for evacuation and a new shift was taking over.

Rescuers battled through Saturday night to burrow through 1,000ft of rubble, 4,000ft below ground, to reach survivors. In the end, all had either died in the explosion or had suffocated.

With everyone accounted for, 43 men were still in hospital, 13 of them in a serious condition, including five being treated for severe burns. Some miners were poisoned by gas because their breathing apparatus failed to work, rescue workers said. Underground temperatures of 35C (95F) and the constant threat of a new collapse or explosion were hampering recovery efforts.

The Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister, Nikolai Beloblotsky, who is heading an investigation into the accident, called it a "national tragedy". President Leonid Kuchma is expected to declare today a day of national mourning.

Angry miners and weeping wives and mothers flocked to the pithead on the outskirts of the city yesterday. Many of the dead were apprentices and other youngsters hired to work on a newly opened seam.

Ukraine's mining industry, like those in other parts of the former Soviet Union, has earned a reputation for danger and death. In one of the biggest accidents of recent years, 60 died in a gas explosion at a Donbass pit in June 1992.

The first funerals for the victims of the latest accident are due to take place today. Mr Beloblotsky said that the government would do all it could for the families. Widows are entitled to five years' pay - about $12,000 (pounds 7,500) - plus a year for each child.