80 Ukrainian miners killed in methane explosion

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Ashen-faced relatives stood in silence beneath a light snow, watching rescuers coated in coal dust drag up the bodies of 81 people killed in a Ukrainian mine explosion and load them onto refrigerator trucks Sunday.

Ashen-faced relatives stood in silence beneath a light snow, watching rescuers coated in coal dust drag up the bodies of 81 people killed in a Ukrainian mine explosion and load them onto refrigerator trucks Sunday.

Survivors of the former Soviet republic's worst mine disaster in decades described a confusing burst, a suffocating cloud of coal dust and the sickening smell of smoke before they were brought to the surface.

A preliminary investigation suggested that Saturday's accident was a methane explosion caused by a violation of safety regulations, the Interfax news agency quoted President Leonid Kuchma as saying. It occurred at the Barakova mine near the eastern town of Krasnodon.

While Ukraine has the world's highest coal industry death rate, the Barakova mine hadn't seen major accidents before. Instead, it was known for the passion of its 3,000 workers, ever-ready to launch a strike to demand back wages and stand up for their rights in one of Ukraine's poorest industries.

On Sunday, that enthusiasm was nowhere to be found. A few grief-stricken miners wandered aimlessly among the crumbling premises of the mine, whose rusty, creaky elevators stand against the dark pyramids of coal rock.

Several rescue workers in dirty orange overalls were packing their gear, the last of the 33 teams who worked since Saturday to pull the dead up from the rubble, at a depth of 664 meters (2,191 feet).

Officials said 80 of the 277 miners who were underground at the time of the explosion died on the spot. Most of the others escaped safely. One died Sunday in the hospital. Seven coal workers remained hospitalized with wounds.

One of them, interviewed in his hospital bed, described the moment of the blast on Russia's NTV television.

"I heard a burst, then saw cloudy coal dust, there was the smell of fire," the survivor said through glazed eyes. His name was not given.

"I called the dispatcher, and she said, 'There's been an explosion, you guys are the only ones left, hurry and come back up."'

A hand-written list of the victims' names hung on a bulletin board at the entrance to the mine's administration building. Next to the list were two red carnations, a notice about volleyball practice, and a note advertising a country cabin for sale.

"My son, my blood!" wailed one woman wrapped in a shawl, whose 21-year-old son Andriy Li-Chan-Yuk was on the list.

Three young men stopped next to the list, and one started crying, touching the written names.

"Five friends at once, just like that. Friends, schoolmates," he said, turning away.

Later Sunday, many of the victims' relatives gathered in the yard of the Krasnodon hospital. Their feet sinking into the mud, they watched as medics pulled out stretchers loaded with bodies from three large refrigerator trucks.

Inside the hospital, the floor was covered with a carpet of bodies. Forensic experts stepped over the corpses, most of them naked, trying to identify them. One miner was laying fully dressed, his hands resting peacefully on his chest.

The accident underlined the messy state of Ukraine's coal industry.

Equipment is outdated and treacherous, and most of Ukraine's more than 400,000 coal workers do not receive their wages on time. Much of eastern Ukraine, once proud of its coal riches, has turned into a wasteland of poverty and environmental destruction.

The average monthly wage of Barakova miners is 920 hryvna (about dlrs 170), said Ukraine's Energy Minister Serhiy Tulub.

Tulub, who was at the accident site Sunday, also said safety violations were likely at fault, according by Interfax.

But miners usually blame accidents on officials' unwillingness to spend money on maintaining or upgrading equipment.

Kuchma declared Monday and Tuesday days of national mourning. Many of the funerals were scheduled for Monday.

Prime Minister Viktor Yushchenko was to visit the disaster site - about 680 kilometers (420 miles) east of Ukraine's capital, Kiev - Monday as head of the government investigative commission.

The president said the government has sent 10 million hryvna (about dlrs 1.8 million) to help the victims' families.

The number of people killed Saturday was the highest since at least 1980, when 68 people died at the Gorskaya mine in then-Soviet Ukraine.

At least 274 miners died in mine accidents in Ukraine last year, down from about 360 in 1998.

Ukraine's mine accidents are often caused by methane, a naturally occurring, odorless and highly explosive gas that seeps out of coal seams and can build up easily in poorly ventilated mine shafts.