Salvation and sunlight for the miners buried for six days

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The Independent Online

Buried 1,000 metres beneath the earth for almost a week, with no food, water or means of communicating with the outside world, the men had all but given up hope.

Buried 1,000 metres beneath the earth for almost a week, with no food, water or means of communicating with the outside world, the men had all but given up hope.

But yesterday, in what they described as a miracle, 11 exhausted Russian coal miners, faces blackened with grime and coal dust, were pulled alive into the light of day. A note the men had managed to scrawl on a ventilation pipe may have helped to end their ordeal.

With time and air running out, it told rescuers struggling to reach them where they were - huddled in an air pocket near the pitface, to escape the rising icy waters of the giant underground lake that had spilled into their mineshaft last Thursday.

"When we saw the rescuers, that was like the appearance of Christ before the people," said Vasily Avdeyev, the mine director who was on his first day in the job when the accident happened.

The men, part of a group of 71 cut off nearly 1km from the surface, had huddled together for warmth and survival. For days, they listened to the 800 rescuers drilling and digging through solid rock and coal sludge to reach them. Twenty-five of their comrades managed to escape in the hours after the disaster and 33 miners trapped in a different part of the mine were rescued on Saturday,

By Tuesday, Russia was beginning to give up on the 13 men still missing. Rescue teams managed to drill a hole into the shaft where they had been working when trapped, but there was no sign of life.

The searchers finally broke through yesterday morning, and that was when they found the note. But Oleg Chebanov, one of the rescued miners, said the men's biggest worry was that their air was on the point of running out. "It was a very close call," he said. "Without air, it's not pleasant."

Mr Chebanov said the men knew they had been saved when they heard voices and saw lights moving towards them in the blackness below.

They didn't fully believe in salvation until it actually happened. "We trusted ourselves and hoped that [the rescuers] would find us," he told Russian television from his hospital bed in nearby Novoshakhtinsk. "I just want to get home as soon as possible." One miner, Sergei Voytinok, died during the ordeal, apparently of exposure.

Another, Sergei Tkach, went off on his own to find an exit. Rescue workers were last night still following his trail through the tunnels of 60-year old Zapadnaya mine. "There is nothing left to do but hope, and I continue to hope," said Mr Tkach's wife.

Relatives and friends were holding a vigil in the snow and freezing wind outside Zapadnaya, in the Rostov coal-mining region about 600 miles south of Moscow, when a manager came running out. "They've been found!" he said.

There was relief on the surface as the men emerged looking - in some cases - healthier than 33 other miners rescued on Saturday.

"It's a mystery. They are actually in better shape than the ones we rescued days ago," said Viktor Mogilevsky, a doctor with the rescue operation.

Mr Avdeyev said: "We had nothing to eat. I delivered a speech saying that a 20-day fast has not ever hurt anyone and it is good for the health."

A total of 71 men descended to Zapadnaya's coal face last Thursday night. Shortly after, water from an underground lake began gushing into the main access shaft, shorting out the mine's electrical system and crippling the lift they might have used to escape. Twenty-five men scrambled to the surface in the hours immediately following the accident.

On Saturday, as the water continued to rise, rescue workers located 33 more miners in a half-flooded chamber near a narrow vertical access shaft. They were all safely extracted over several hours in a small, single-passenger cage lift normally used by inspectors.

The search went on for the missing 13 men. Rescuers raced against time to sink an emergency tunnel, through several metres of solid rock, into a northern pocket of Zapadnaya from the neighbouring Komsomolskaya Pravda mine.

At one point, emergency workers lowered an underwater robot television camera - the same type used in the ill-fated attempt to rescue 118 sailors from the sunken Kursk submarine three years ago. They saw nothing.

Officials said that, despite suffering from hunger, exposure and fatigue, most of the men had insisted on walking more than a mile through cramped shafts and emergency tunnels to reach the surface. A couple were shown on TV being carried out on stretchers.

It was a rare piece of good news from the troubled post-Soviet mining sector. Hundreds of workers die in accidents every year, 160 in the past two years. The situation is even more grim in Ukraine's Donbass coal-mining zone, adjacent to the Rostov region, where an average of 200 miners are killed on the job each year.

Even as the 11 rescued miners were blinking thankfully in the sunlight, news hit of a methane explosion in a coal mine in Partizansk, thousands of miles away in the Russian far east. That blast killed five.

The rescued men now face unemployment as officials say the mine will have to be closed.

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