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Methane Blast Kills at Least 42 Miners

The coal-blackened faces of exhausted rescuers and the red-rimmed eyes of anxious relatives told a grim story of disappearing hopes Sunday, a day after a methane blast tore through a mine in the latest disaster to strike Russia's hardscrabble coal country. The blast at the Taizhina mine in a coal-rich strip of Siberia called the Kuzbass killed at least 42 and left five missing, authorities said.

As emergency officials plotted rescue and recovery strategies, grieving relatives sat in a rundown auditorium dominated by a painting of a strong, smiling miner carrying flowers. Others milled nervously, awaiting news they knew was unlikely to be good. The head of a government commission set up to deal with the disaster, Sergei Ovanesyan, said it was "practically impossible" that any of those still missing would be found alive.

Officials in charge of the salvage effort later said that of the 42 bodies found, 36 had been pulled to the surface and 29 identified. Eight miners were rescued after the blast on Saturday, said Vladimir Berdnikov, a spokesman for the Siberian emergency situations department.

Rescue workers dug toward the blast site underground from two sides, some from Taizhina and others from an adjacent mine in Osinniki, a sprawling community of ramshackle homes. Discarding oxygen tanks and lighting cigarettes after a shift underground, a handful of rescue workers described digging with shovels but mostly their hands as they approached the blast site, which officials said was about 560 meters beneath the surface.

Asked if there was hope of finding anyone alive, one of the rescuers shook his head. The men refused to talk about the conditions underground, but Interfax said the area was filled with carbon dioxide and Ekho Moskvy radio said work was hampered by heavy smoke.

Deputy Prosecutor General Valentin Simuchenkov told reporters the blast occurred when the concentration of methane gas in the mine had increased roughly tenfold in a short period of time. Investigators want to determine what made it increase so fast and what set off the blast, he said, adding that an earthquake or shifting of coal plates were among the potential causes of the buildup. Simuchenkov said it was unclear whether human error was to blame, but that a criminal investigation was opened into suspicions of safety violations.

Saturday's accident was the deadliest in the Kuzbass since 1997, when a methane blast at a mine in the nearby city of Novokuznetsk killed 67 people.

(The Moscow Times 12.iv.04)

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