With more than 30 workers trapped, miners were enlisted to clear rubble, but operations were hampered by limited access to the deep subterranean network
(DONETSK, Ukraine) — An explosion ripped through a coal mine before dawn Wednesday in war-torn eastern Ukraine, killing at least one miner, rebel and government officials said. An injured miner reported seeing five bodies.
With more than 30 workers trapped, miners were enlisted to clear rubble, but operations were hampered by limited access to the deep subterranean network.
The explosion at the Zasyadko mine in Donetsk, an eastern city under separatist control, was not caused by shelling, rebel authorities said. Eastern Ukraine has been wracked by fighting between government forces and Russian-backed rebels for almost a year, a conflict that has killed more than 6,000 people.
The blast Wednesday occurred more than 1,000 meters (3,280 feet) underground as 230 workers were in the mine, separatist authorities in Donetsk said in a statement, blaming a combustible mixture of methane and air — a common cause of industrial mining accidents.
By mid-afternoon, one miner was confirmed dead, 198 workers had been evacuated from the mine and the fate of 32 others was unknown, Donetsk rebel officials said.
It was not possible to immediately reconcile the figures given by different authorities.
One lightly wounded miner being evacuated, who gave his name only as Sergei, told The Associated Press that he saw five bodies being pulled out, but provided no further details.
Another injured miner, 42-year-old Igor Murygin, said at a hospital in Donetsk that he was blown off his feet by the impact of the explosion.
“When I came to, there was dust everywhere. People were groaning,” said Murygin, who doctors said had burns over 20 percent of his body.
Murygin said the mine had installed new equipment and that nothing appeared to be out of order.
The rebels said 15 miners were sent to medical centers in Donetsk.
“For now, I can say only that 32 people are below ground. One person has died,” Ivan Prikhodko, administrative head of the Kiev district in Donetsk, where the affected mine is located, told Donetsk News Agency. “Until rescuers get to them, speaking about how many people have died would be unethical.”
A mine rescue services representative, Yuliana Bedilo, also said only one death had been confirmed.
Miners arriving for their morning shift, shortly after the accident, have helped in the recovery operation. Reaching the stricken portion of the mine has been complicated, however, as one of the three entrances has been forced closed by artillery shelling that has blighted Donetsk. That entrance is the closest to the area where the trapped miners are located.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said in Kiev that rebels had prevented a team of 60 Ukrainian rescue workers from reaching the mine to provide assistance. But leading rebel representative Denis Pushilin denied that Ukrainian authorities had offered any help.
“If we truly need assistance, we will turn to Russia,” Pushilin was quoted as saying by the Donetsk News Agency.
Separatist officials trickled into the grounds of the mine throughout the morning, but all refused to respond to questions, a stance that frustrated many miners’ families.
Valentina Petrova came to the Zasyadko mine looking for her 47-year-old son, Vladimir.
“He was supposed to retire next year. Everyone is angry that they say on TV that 32 people died but nobody tells us anything,” she said.
Workers complained volubly about the long history of safety violations at the Zasyadko mine.
One, who gave only his first name, Kostya, said two of his brothers had been injured in earlier blasts at the same mine.
“We work like crazy for peanuts. We want this place to be safe. We want our children to be able to work here,” he told the AP.
The mine has a history of deadly accidents, including one in November 2007 that killed 101 workers, and two more in December 2007 that killed 52 miners and then five more workers.
Ninety-nine people were killed in Ukraine’s coal mines in 2014, according to mining safety bodies. Thirteen of those deaths were a direct result of the war in the east, where mines have frequently been struck in artillery duels between rebel and Ukrainian government forces.
Peter Leonard in Kiev, Ukraine, contributed to this report.