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97 killed in Siberian mine blast

Rescuers search for 13 people still missing after a methane gas explosion at the 5-year-old coal facility.

March 20, 2007|David Holley | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — A methane gas explosion in a Siberian coal mine Monday killed at least 97 people, with 13 others still missing as of early today, authorities said.

About 200 people were underground when the blast ripped through the Ulyanovskaya mine, which opened in 2002 and had good equipment, including modern gas-detection devices, Russian media reported.

Mine officials were among those still underground late Monday, the Russian news agency Interfax reported. A British specialist and his interpreter were reported among the dead.

The explosion reportedly occurred after the roof of a mine shaft collapsed, releasing methane gas.

The mine is in the Kemerovo region, about 1,850 miles east of Moscow, which contains extremely large coal reserves.

"The main task at the moment is to rescue as many people as possible. The second task is to prevent a fire in the mine," Kemerovo Gov. Aman Tuleyev told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

Thirty rescue teams totaling about 200 people were working to save those who were trapped, Interfax reported Monday evening.

Relatives had gathered at a mining office, where counselors offered psychological assistance, the news agency said.


'None of them left'

"The chief engineer, the deputy director for production, the sector's head and the chief technician entered the mine ahead of the blast," Sergei Cheremnov, a spokesman for the Kemerovo regional administration, told Interfax late Monday evening.

"They showed representatives of a foreign firm how gas-detection equipment operates. Unfortunately, none of them left the mine," he said.

"The body of a foreign specialist has been found," Cheremnov added later. "He was a bank representative who was examining the enterprise to determine its paying capacity."

Search-and-rescue efforts were to continue throughout the night, with a growing number of workers and equipment, the Emergency Situations Ministry said.

The prosecutor general's office opened a criminal investigation of the incident, which appeared to be Russia's worst coal mining disaster in more than a decade.

The Ulyanovskaya mine produces 3.3 million tons of coal a year and its reserves total 230 million tons, RIA Novosti reported.

The mine is owned by the Yuzhkuzbassugol company, which in turn is half-owned by Evraz, Russia's second-largest steelmaker.

Vasily Popok, a reporter with the Kemerovo daily newspaper Kuzbass, said in a telephone interview with The Times that the Ulyanovskaya mine used modern methods and "all the up-to-date equipment."


Lax discipline suspected

"But even that didn't prevent such a tragic accident," Popok said. "The problem is that every mine has a unique geological position, and no one can always predict a possible slide of the rock layers, which can immediately result in the emission of large quantities of gas."

Popok said he suspected that lax discipline might have played a role in the disaster.

"To tell the truth, in the Soviet Union the equipment and mining methods may have been old and not quite safe but the control operations, inspections of all kinds and labor discipline were significantly higher," Popok said.

"I haven't heard for a long time now of a miner being sacked for smoking at work, a measure routinely used in Soviet times," he said. "But miners continue to smoke.... Natural causes in combination with low discipline can be quite lethal in modern mining regardless of whether the equipment is up to date."

An explosion two years ago in the Kemerovo region's Yesaulskaya mine killed 22 people.

A methane gas explosion in a mine near the western Siberian city of Novokuznetsk killed dozens of miners in 1997, with reports putting the death toll in that accident at up to 67.


Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.

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