Two miners rescued as search carries on: Safety of roof-bolting in question as one man dies opening coalface to give marginal pit a future

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The Independent Online
RESCUE teams were digging with their hands early today to reach two miners still trapped 2,000ft underground by a roof collapse at Bilsthorpe Colliery, Nottinghamshire, after releasing two men unharmed and finding another miner dead.

The missing men were cut off somewhere behind a barrier of rubble and machinery 200ft thick in the roadway they had been driving in preparation for a new coalface at the pit, one of the 31 earmarked for closure by the Government last year, but subsequently reprieved.

The two brought out alive just before midnight last night were Russell Turner, 36, a development worker who is married with two children and from Mansfield, and Orest Kocij, 43, a married electrician from Blidworth. They were released after 12 1/2 hours huddled in an air pocket.

Both were said to be shocked and exhausted but physically unhurt. They were given a drink before being brought to the surface for medical check-ups. The rescue teams had managed to establish contact with them during the evening by shouting. However, their jubilation at finding their colleagues alive was tempered early today by growing fears for the remaining two men.

They had been in brief telephone contact with the pithead after the tunnel roof caved in at lunchtime, saying they were cut off in very dusty conditions. Then their line went dead.

All had been working in a tunnel 7ft high by 15ft wide in an area of the pit's Parkgate Seam ventilated by compressed air, and there were fears that the air line may have been cut.

A British Coal spokesman at the pithead said that it appeared that Mr Turner and Mr Kocij had no knowledge of where the other two miners were. 'I think obviously they must be quite distressed because they know their colleagues are still missing,' the spokesman said.

Earlier, the colliery under-manager, David Shelton, 31, a married man from Bingham, east of Nottingham, was found dead under the fall of rubble. The sixth man who had been with the trapped group, Paul Smith, 22, a haulage worker, escaped by crawling clear on his hands and knees. He was taken to hospital at Sutton-in-Ashfield with back injuries but his condition is not serious.

Conditions were so cramped for the rescue teams that digging was only possible in 20-minute shifts for one man at a time, and rescuers had to use their hands. 'It's mainly Bilsthorpe men who are manning the operation with the help of British Coal's rescue team from Mansfield. The Bilsthorpe men obviously know the trapped men,' said John Longden, British Coal's Nottinghamshire area director.

Despite work on the new face, long-term prospects for Bilsthorpe, which employs 613 men, remain marginal.

Mr Longden, said that the colliery had a good safety record, but he refused to comment on suggestions that miners may have been under excessive pressure to increase productivity, fearing closure.

Questions will also be asked today about the technique of roof-bolting, relatively new to the British mining industry, which the men were using in place of steel rings to hold up the tunnel roof. The technique has been criticised as more dangerous than the traditional rings, but it has been authorised by the Mines Inspectorate, and Bilsthorpe men are experienced at using the bolts.

The six men in the ill-fated team, all British Coal employees, were driving the bolts to secure the roadway's roof by fixing it to strata above.

The bolts fitted where the roof collapsed were put in place two weeks ago and should have been inspected.

Bilsthorpe is an isolated mining community on the fringe of Sherwood Forest, between Mansfield and Newark. A high proportion - perhaps one in three - of its miners live locally.

Doubts over safety, page 2

(Photograph and graphic omitted)