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Mine Blaze Kills at Least 33 in Ukraine

Disaster: The deaths 2,200 feet down are a dark reminder of the coal industry's dismal safety record in the former Soviet republic.

July 08, 2002|MAURA REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — Coal dust deep in a Ukrainian mine ignited Sunday, starting a fire that killed at least 33 miners--the worst accident so far this year in the former Soviet republic's troubled coal industry.

Thirty of the miners were in a trolley that was descending into the Ukraina mine in the town of Ukrainsk at 2:30 a.m. when the fire broke out, said Col. Oleksey Pechenkin, spokesman for Ukraine's Emergencies Ministry. Three other victims were found near where the trolley had come to a halt, about 2,200 feet underground, he said. One miner was missing.

"No one is saying anything to us," a distraught woman--one of dozens milling outside the mine's offices--told Russia's NTV network while officials were still tallying the dead. "Three of them were left down there, one foreman and two miners, but we still don't know where they are. We hope they will come out safely."

Firefighters were still battling the blaze Sunday evening. News reports cited officials at the scene as saying that rescue workers retrieving the bodies had to contend with temperatures inside the shaft of more than 180 degrees.

Ukraine's coal industry has one of the world's worst safety records. In the first six months of this year, 116 miners died in job-related accidents, according to Ukraine's Labor Safety Committee. More than 3,700 have died since Ukraine gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991. Critics estimate that six miners die for every million tons of coal mined.

Independent Ukraine's worst mining accident occurred in 2000, when at least 80 miners were killed in a methane blast at the Barakova mine in the Luhansk region.

"After every such tragedy, people start saying that the country is paying too high a price for this fuel, that the mines must be closed," said Roman Sobel, a correspondent for Ukraine's One Plus One TV channel. "But then some time goes by and they begin to forget--until the next tragedy takes place."

Some officials said the fire appeared to have begun at the top of a conveyor belt, where coal dust had accumulated. Government officials promised a full investigation and compensation for the victims' families.

The Ukrainsk blaze was the second coal mine fire of the weekend in Ukraine. The first occurred Saturday in the Rodina mine near the eastern city of Kryvyi Rih. Sixty miners evacuated without injury, the Russian news agency Interfax reported.

Working conditions in Ukraine's Soviet-era mines are dismal--and worsened by a lethal combination of corroding equipment, extremely deep shafts and shoddy safety procedures.

Since June 4, a number of miners have camped out in the center of the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to demand unpaid wages. The protest, which began with several dozen miners, has grown to about 200, including several dozen conducting a hunger strike, according to Ukrainian news reports.

The worst single coal mine accident in recent years occurred in March 1992, when 263 people were killed in a gas explosion at the Kozlu mine on Turkey's Black Sea coast.

Yakov Ryzhak of The Times' Moscow Bureau contributed to this report.

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