Russian Mine Disaster the Worst in Decades

Emergency workers at the mine. Credit: Gregory Feifer, NPR. i i

hide captionEmergency workers rest after emerging from the devastated Ulyanovskaya mine pit.

Gregory Feifer, NPR
Emergency workers at the mine. Credit: Gregory Feifer, NPR.

Emergency workers rest after emerging from the devastated Ulyanovskaya mine pit.

Gregory Feifer, NPR
The road leading to the Ulyanovskaya coal mine. Credit: Gregory Feifer, NPR. i i

hide captionThe road leading to the Ulyanovskaya coal mine, located in the Siberian region of Kemerovo.

Gregory Feifer, NPR
The road leading to the Ulyanovskaya coal mine. Credit: Gregory Feifer, NPR.

The road leading to the Ulyanovskaya coal mine, located in the Siberian region of Kemerovo.

Gregory Feifer, NPR
Relatives of miners killed in the Ulyanovskaya mine blast bury their dead in the nearby city of Novo i i

hide captionRelatives of miners killed in the Ulyanovskaya mine blast bury their dead in the nearby city of Novokuznetsk.

Gregory Feifer, NPR
Relatives of miners killed in the Ulyanovskaya mine blast bury their dead in the nearby city of Novo

Relatives of miners killed in the Ulyanovskaya mine blast bury their dead in the nearby city of Novokuznetsk.

Gregory Feifer, NPR

The solemn ritual of burying the dead began Wednesday in a Siberian coal-mining town, where at least 107 people died in an explosion and fire Monday. It was Russia's worst mining disaster in living memory.

Officials say the explosion that ripped through the mine in the Kemerovo region could have been caused by coal dust, but was more likely caused by miners breaking though into a pocket of methane gas trapped deep underground.

Whatever the cause, the blast spread with such force and with such speed through the workings of the mine, officials say it's surprising anyone survived.

The Ulyanovskaya mine complex is located in the middle of a pine and birch forest about 50 miles from the city of Novokuznetsk. The snow on the ground is melting and dirty. Rescuers inside the mine are searching for three miners who are still unaccounted for by pumping out water that flooded the mine after the explosion.

Officials say it could take up to three more days to search the mine thoroughly, and up to two weeks to confirm the cause of the blast.

Sergei Nogis, technical director of the company that runs the mine, is helping oversee the rescue operation.

He said emergency workers are sifting through areas in which the ceilings of mineshafts have collapsed. They're trying to prevent new hazards and make sure more fires don't break out, he says.

Emergency workers rescued 93 people from the mine pit. The injured were taken to hospitals in the city of Novokuznetsk. Among them was Alexei Loboda, who'd worked in the mine for two years. He said the explosion caught him completely off guard.

"I suddenly heard a thundering sound," he said in Russian. "But I didn't see how anything happened. I was lucky to have made it out. I can't say anything about how it happened, I just don't know."

The Ulyanovskaya mine is located in the Kuzbass coal basin, where miners make an average of $700 a month. They say conditions in many aging mines have become dangerous since end of communist-era subsidies.

But the Ulyanovskaya mine is one of a new generation of private mines. It's five years old and was considered one of the country's most modern. When the explosion took place, most of the mine pit's managers were underground inspecting a newly installed British safety system.

Vladimir Sizentsev, who lost his 36-year-old son in the blast, says he believes the mine was well-equipped, and that nothing could have prevented the explosion.

"It's just a tragedy, a huge tragedy," he said in Russian. "This is a mining town. Everyone understands the risks miners take carrying out their work."

The explosion has devastated the gritty industrial city of 600,000. Although metals companies are its biggest employers, mining still provides a large number of jobs. Most of the Ulyanovskaya mine's employees live here, and relatives began burying their dead Wednesday.

At several city morgues, other relatives, many dressed in black, continued their arduous task of identifying the dead. Some were stricken with grief and unable to walk. Many of the bodies were torn apart or badly burned in the blast.

After seeing the body of her 27-year-old son, Liudmilla Zakirova recalled what he had told her about the mine.

"He kept telling me, 'Mom, don't worry, this mine has the most modern equipment, everything's OK here, please don't be concerned.' But of course I was worried, like any mother would be," she said in Russian.

The Kremlin has ordered an investigation into the mine blast. Residents of Novokuznetsk aren't angry at the authorities over the accident. But they say they can't make sense of what they say is the worst industrial accident in their region's history.

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