Rescuers have found a survivor in a Siberian mine where a gas leak killed more than 50 people in one of the worst disasters to hit Russia’s coal heartland since Soviet times.
The disaster in the Kemerovo region killed 51 people on Thursday, including six rescuers who were sent down to try to bring out dozens of men stuck deep underground.
Sergei Tsivilyov, governor of the Kemerovo region, said the survivor was found in the Listvyazhnaya mine and that he was being taken to hospital. He was a rescuer who had been presumed dead. Mr Tsivilyov said finding other survivors at this point was highly unlikely.
Hours after a methane gas explosion and fire filled the mine with toxic fumes on Thursday, rescuers were forced to halt the search because of a buildup of methane and carbon monoxide gas from the fire.
A total of 239 people were rescued from the mine; 63 of them, as of Friday morning, have sought medical assistance, according to Kemerovo officials.
The state Tass and RIA-Novosti news agencies on Thursday had cited emergency officials as saying that there was no chance of finding any more survivors, and put the death toll at 52 on Thursday evening. The survivor rescued on Friday morning brings that down to 51.
It was the deadliest mine accident in Russia since 2010, when two methane explosions and a fire killed 91 people at the Raspadskaya mine in the same Kemerovo region.
Regional officials declared three days of mourning.
Russia’s deputy prosecutor general Dmitry Demeshin told reporters that the fire most likely resulted from a methane explosion caused by a spark.
The miners who survived described their shock after reaching the surface. “Impact. Air. Dust. And then we smelled gas and just started walking out, as many as we could,” one of the rescued miners, Sergey Golubin, said in televised remarks.
“We didn’t even realise what happened at first and took some gas in.”
Another miner, Rustam Chebelkov, recalled the dramatic moment when he was rescued along with his comrades as chaos engulfed the mine.
“I was crawling and then I felt them grabbing me,” he said. “I reached my arms out to them, they couldn’t see me, the visibility was bad. They grabbed me and pulled me out, if not for them, we’d be dead.”
Explosions of methane released from coal beds during mining are rare but they cause the most fatalities in the coal mining industry.
The Interfax news agency reported that miners have oxygen supplies normally lasting for six hours that could be stretched for a few more hours but would have expired by late Thursday.
Russia’s Investigative Committee has launched a criminal probe into the fire over violations of safety regulations.
Five people have been arrested so far, including the mine director, two state safety inspectors and two senior managers.
President Vladimir Putin extended his condolences to the families of the dead and ordered the government to offer all necessary assistance to those injured.
Thursday’s fire was not the first deadly accident at the Listvyazhnaya mine – in 2004, a methane explosion left 13 miners dead.
In 2007, a methane explosion at the Ulyanovskaya mine in the Kemerovo region killed 110 miners in the deadliest mine accident since Soviet times.
In 2016, 36 miners were killed in a series of methane explosions in a coal mine in Russia’s far north. In the wake of the incident, authorities analysed the safety of the country’s 58 coal mines and declared 20 of them, or 34 per cent, potentially unsafe.
The Listvyazhnaya mine was not among them at the time, according to media reports.
Russia’s state technology and ecology watchdog Rostekhnadzor inspected the mine in April and registered 139 violations, including breaching fire safety regulations.
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