MOSCOW — In one of the worst Soviet coal mining disasters in recent years, more than 30 miners died Sunday when fire raged through a Ukrainian coal shaft, the official Tass news agency and other media reported.
"The fire rages on," Konstantin I. Masik, the Ukraine's deputy prime minister, said in a television interview Sunday night. "Unfortunately, we have failed to localize the fire."
Clouds of poisonous gas hung in the air as 120 firefighters battled to extinguish the blaze, which started Saturday on a conveyor belt used to transport coal to the surface and trapped 112 miners, according to "Vremya," the nightly news program on Soviet state television.
"This was one of the largest accidents that has occurred in a mine in recent years," "Vremya" said. "Thirty-one men were suffocated and died."
One man was still missing, but the rest of the miners were rescued, Masik added.
There was, however, some discrepancy over the number of victims who perished in the blaze at the Yuzhnodonbasskaya-1 mine in Donetsk, the heart of the coal fields in the eastern Ukrainian Donetsk Basin. Tass reported that 32 people had been killed.
Masik warned that the danger was not over because the fire's high temperatures might cause an explosion at a nearby electric station.
The Ukrainian government formed a commission to look into the cause of the blaze, which "was more proof that the miners' problems are far from being solved," a "Vremya" anchor said.
Fed up with their dangerous working conditions and the failure of the government to solve their economic, social and political problems, Soviet miners have staged two devastating strikes over the last two years. In the most recent strike, more than 300,000 miners stayed off the job for two months this spring, calling for the resignation of Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Sunday's disaster underscored the position of the miners that despite their loud complaints, conditions remain very dangerous. According to the government newspaper Izvestia, 424 coal miners were killed during nine months of 1990.
In Donetsk Basin, the country's largest mining region, two lives are lost for every 1 million tons mined, according to the Donetsk Statistics Committee.
That rate is 24 times greater than that in the United States, where one life is lost for every 12 million tons of coal mined, the Associated Press reported.
Gorbachev sent a telegram to the staff of Yuzhnodonbasskaya-1 and the families of the victims that said: "I express deep regrets over the tragedy at the mine. I share the grief of the families and relatives of the miners who were killed."