RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
More funerals in Russia today for those killed in one of the country's worst mining disasters. One hundred eight workers are now known to have died in Monday's explosion at a Siberian coal mine.
NPR's Gregory Feifer went to the mine and filed this report.
GREGORY FEIFER: Officials say the explosion that ripped through the mine could have been caused by coal dust, but was more likely caused by miners breaking into a pocket of methane gas trapped 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.
I'm standing at the entrance to the Ulyanovskaya mine complex 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 here. Rescuers inside the mine are searching for miners still missing by pumping out water that flooded parts of the mine after the explosion.
Officials say there is almost no hope of rescuing the two miners said to be still missing. They 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 Nogius(ph), technical director of the Yuzhkuzbassugol company that runs the mine, is helping oversee the rescue operation. He says emergency workers are sifting through areas in which the ceilings of mineshafts have collapsed.
Mr. SERGEI NOGIUS (Technical Director, Yuzhkuzbassugol): (Through translator) They're also trying to prevent new hazards, including making sure new fires don't break out.
FEIFER: Emergency workers rescued 93 people from the mine pit. The injured were taken to hospitals in the city of Novokuznetsk. Among them was Alexi Loboda(ph), who'd worked in the mine for two years. He said the explosion caught him completely off guard.
Mr. ALEXI LOBODA (Rescued Miner): (Through translator) I suddenly heard a thundering sound, 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.
FEIFER: 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 the end of communist era subsidies. But the Ulyanovskaya mine was different. It's 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 Sisonsift(ph) lost his 36-year-old son in the blast. He says he believes the mine was well equipped and that nothing could have prevented the explosion.
Mr. VLADIMIR SISONSIFT (Father of Victim): (Through translator) It's just a tragedy, a huge tragedy. This is a mining town. Everyone understands the risks miners take carrying out their work.
FEIFER: The explosion has devastated this gritty industrial city of 600,000 people. Although metals companies are its biggest employers, mining still provides a large number of jobs. Most of the Ulyanovskaya mine employees live here, and relatives began burying their dead yesterday.
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FEIFER: 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. Nudmilo Sacuravas(ph) spoke after having seen the body of her 27-year-old son.
Ms. NUDMILO SACURAVAS (Mother of Victim): (Through translator) He kept telling me, mom, don't worry, this mine has the most modern equipment. Everything is okay here. Please don't be concerned. But of course I was worried, like any other mother would be.
FEIFER: 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.
Gregory Feifer, NPR News, Novokuznetsk.
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