Fears for trapped Russian miners as explosion kills 61

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The Independent Online

A methane explosion killed 61 people when it ripped through a Siberian coal mine in the deadliest accident to hit Russia's mining industry in at least a decade.

The death toll could climb steeply as the local administration said that at least 64 miners were still underground eight hours after the blast yesterday. "Yes, I can confirm that 61 miners have died," said a spokesman for the regional administration.

President Vladimir Putin ordered his Emergencies minister to fly to the Ulyanovskaya mine, in the Kemerovo region, to oversee the rescue effort. "The main task now is to find as many people as possible," the governor of Kemerovo, Aman Tuleyev, said. Television pictures showed rescue workers in breathing apparatus walking down a shaft into the pit. They also showed one miner, his clothes black with dirt, lying motionless on a stretcher as emergency workers transferred him to an ambulance. The spokesman for the regional administration said 200 miners had been in the pit at the time of the blast. Seventy-five people had been safely brought to the surface, he said, leaving 64 underground.

Rescue officials said attempts to reach the trapped miners were being hampered by thick smoke and because sections of the roof had collapsed. At the entrance to the mine complex, security guards prevented reporters from getting close to the pit. Ambulances and rescue vehicles were driving to and from the site

"It is a very tough situation down there," a local ambulance worker, Yuri Shchetinin, told Rossiya television. "There are lot of miners there. We will try to get them out."

The blast was the worst in a long line of fatal accidents in Russian mines, many of which are several decades old and lack modern equipment. Last year, 25 Russian miners died in a fire at a gold mine in eastern Siberia. A gas explosion at a coal mine in Kemerovo in 2004 killed 45 people.

The Russian Prime Minister, Mikhail Fradkov, said there would be a review of industry safety standards. "Tougher measures will be taken to ensure workers' safety in such dangerous locations," he said in televised comments from South Africa, where he is on a visit.

The mine belongs to the Yuzhkuzbassugol company, in which Russia's second-biggest steelmaker, Evraz, holds a 50 per cent stake. Yuzhkuzbassugol's management owns the other 50 per cent and has operational control of the company. Evraz declined to comment yesterday.

The Ulyanovskaya mine was opened in 2002, making it unusually new by the standards of Russia's mining industry.. REUTERS