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Russian Miners Trapped After Shafts Flood

Of the 46 workers, 33 are found alive and will be brought to the surface. Rescuers are tunneling in hopes of finding the rest.

October 25, 2003|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — Rescue workers raced to carve evacuation tunnels Friday to reach 46 coal miners trapped deep underground by water that flooded shafts and blocked their exit -- and early today, authorities reported that a group of 33 were still alive.

"All efforts are being made to rescue the people in the pit," Vladimir Chub, governor of the southern Russian region of Rostov, where the accident occurred, told relatives of the trapped miners Friday. "The situation is complicated. Everything is being done to stop the flow of water into the shaft.... We expect that these rescue works, as the experts are telling us, will continue for no less that two more full days."

The assembled relatives, in footage shown on NTV television, responded to the announcement of the time needed with gasps of frustration and despair. Then came a chorus of voices:

"Two days, that is too much! Maybe you need more people, for God's sake, there are many tunneling specialists around here, take them if you need help. Something needs to be done, we cannot just wait. These are live people down there. We need them back alive!"

At least two scouts who entered the mine early today said the fate of a second group of 13 miners was not clear. But Chub told journalists that the 33 in the larger group would soon be brought to the surface two or three at a time. At least one of the miners was in "bad condition," Chub said. Ambulances were at the scene.

Rescuers' top priority was to dump at least 175 truckloads of stone and earth into a vertical shaft to block the flow of water into the mine from what Russian media described as an underground lake with an estimated 28 million tons of water.

While that work was underway, teams using light tools worked to dig tunnels crossing a distance of about 70 yards from adjacent mines to shafts where it was hoped the miners had found refuge.

The digging was slow going, however, and could take up to three days, local authorities told the Russian news agency Interfax.

"It's impossible to use machinery in the present conditions, so rescuers are tunneling manually, carving out a narrow shaft," Chub told reporters.

Until the scouts went in, there was no communication with the miners. Those still missing could be in areas that lacked a source of fresh air or which had already flooded.

Vladimir Gorbatov, head of coal industry rescue operations, told NTV that the miners might be able to survive for as many as seven days underground.

After meeting with President Vladimir V. Putin, Energy Minister Igor Yusufov told a Moscow news conference Friday that "it is our strong hope" rescuers can dig from the adjacent mine to "the presumed location of the 46 people and organize access to the surface for them.... But the situation is further complicated because there is no communication with the miners and power in the mine is down."

The incident began Thursday afternoon. Of 71 miners in the shaft at the time, 25 succeeded in quickly reaching the surface, but the others remained trapped early today.

One of the miners who narrowly escaped was shown in his hospital bed on NTV. His head wrapped in gauze, he said he had been swept away by the force of the water, which ripped off his rubber boots and banged him against pipes.

"As I swirled along the tunnel I could not figure out where my legs or head were," he said. "But then I managed to escape."

Russian authorities swiftly blamed the disaster on failure by the company running the mine to comply with safety standards.

But an underlying cause of the disaster appeared to be failure to properly maintain nearby closed mines with proper sealing or sufficiently frequent pumping to prevent water from building up, Russian media reported.

The Russian mining industry has low safety standards and suffers frequent accidents.

Statistics from the Independent Coal Miners' Union show that 68 miners were killed on the job last year and 98 in 2001.

This accident was the second case this year of flooding at the Zapadnaya mine in Novoshakhtinsk, a town in the Rostov region, about 600 miles south of Moscow.

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