A devastating explosion at a coal mine in Siberia on Thursday led to 52 miners and rescuers dying about 820 feet underground, Russian officials said.
Hours after a methane gas explosion and fire filled the mine with toxic fumes, rescue workers found 14 bodies but were then forced to interrupt the search for 38 others due to an accumulation of methane and carbon monoxide gas from the fire. Another 239 people were rescued.
State news agencies Tass and RIA-Novosti quoted rescue workers as saying there was no chance of finding more survivors in the Listvyazhnaya mine in the Kemerovo region of southwestern Siberia.
The Interfax news agency quoted a representative of the regional administration who also set the death toll from Thursday’s accident at 52, and said that they died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
It was the deadliest mine accident in Russia since 2010, when two methane explosions and a fire killed 91 people at the Raspadskaya mine in the same Kemerovo region.
A total of 285 people were in the Listvyazhnaya mine early on Thursday when the explosion sent smoke that quickly filled the mine through the ventilation system. Rescuers led to the surface 239 miners, of whom 49 were injured.
Later in the day, six rescuers also died when they searched for others who were trapped in a remote part of the mine, according to news reports.
Regional officials declared three days of mourning.
Russia’s Deputy Attorney General Dmitry Demeshin told reporters that the fire was probably due to a methane explosion caused by a spark.
The surviving miners described their shock after reaching the surface.
“Impact. Air. Dust. And then we smelled gas and just started going out, as many as we could,” said one of the rescued miners, Sergey Golubin, in televised comments. “We did not even understand what happened first and took in some gas.”
Another miner, Rustam Chebelkov, recalled the dramatic moment when he was rescued along with his comrades when chaos engulfed the mine.
“I crawled and then I felt how they grabbed me,” he said. “I stretched out my arms to them, they could not see me, the visibility was poor. They grabbed me and pulled me out, if not for them we would have been dead.”
Explosions of methane released from coal beds during mining operations are rare, but they cause the most deaths in the coal mining industry.
The news agency Interfax reported that miners have oxygen reserves that normally last for six hours and could only be extended for a few more hours.
Russia’s investigative committee has launched a criminal investigation into the fire, which violated security regulations that led to deaths. It was stated that the mining director and two senior executives were arrested.
President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences to the families of the dead and ordered the government to offer all necessary assistance to the injured.
Thursday’s fire was not the first fatal accident at the Listvyazhnaya mine. In 2004, a methane explosion killed 13 miners.
In 2007, a methane explosion at the Ulyanovskaya mine in the Kemerovo region killed 110 miners in the deadliest Soviet-era mine accident.
In 2016, 36 miners were killed in a series of methane explosions in a coal mine in the far north of Russia. In the wake of the incident, authorities analyzed the safety of the country’s 58 coal mines and declared 20 of them, or 34%, potentially unsafe.
The Listvyazhnaya mine was not among them at the time, according to media reports.
Russia’s state technology and ecology watch, Rostekhnadzor, inspected the mine in April and registered 139 violations, including violations of fire safety regulations.