Image: Injured miners
Wang Song  /  Xinhua News Agency via AP
Injured miners receive treatment at a hospital in Hegang, China, on Saturday.
updated 11/21/2009 9:30:35 PM ET 2009-11-22T02:30:35

Rescuers worked in frigid cold to reach 21 miners trapped underground Sunday as the death toll from a huge gas explosion in a northern Chinese coal mine jumped to 87.

The pre-dawn blast Saturday at the state-run Xinxing mine in Heilongjiang (pronounced HAY-long-jeeahng) province near the border with Russia was the latest to hit China's mining industry — the world's deadliest. Authorities say parlous safety was improving, but hundreds still die in major accidents each year.

The death toll Sunday was more than double the figure reported overnight by state television, said a man who answered the phone at the office of the mine.

Ventilation and power were restored in the mine, said the man, who refused to give his name because he was not authorized to speak to the media. The mine's director, deputy director and chief engineer were fired Saturday, the man said.

A total of 528 people were working in the Xinxing (pronounced shin-shing) mine at the time of the 2:30 a.m. explosion, the State Administration of Work Safety said in a statement. It said 418 workers escaped.

Billowing smoke, collapsed building
Television footage showed smoke billowing out of the mine after the blast that resulted from a gas build-up. The explosion caused a nearby building to collapse.

State-run CCTV displayed a diagram showing the miners trapped about a third of a mile underground. Footage showed one entrance was blocked, and rescuers in orange suits with breathing equipment attempted to enter through another.

Overnight temperatures dropped as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Central Meteorological Station.

Wang Xingang, one of those rescued, recounted how the blast briefly knocked him out.

"When I regained consciousness, I groped my way out in the dark and called for help," the official Xinhua News Agency quoted the 27-year-old electrician as saying.

Xinxing is near the border with Russia, about 250 miles northeast of the provincial capital, Harbin.

Trying to boost safety
Large state-owned coal mines, such as Xinxing, are generally considered safer than smaller, private ones that account for the bulk of production. Saturday's blast underscores the difficulties the government faces in trying to boost safety while maintaining output.

Coal is vital to the vast population and booming economy, as China uses it to generate about three-quarters of its electricity.

The government has cracked down on unregulated mining operations, which account for almost 80 percent of the country's 16,000 mines. It says the closure of about 1,000 dangerous small mines last year has helped it cut fatalities.

The average number of miners killed has halved, to about six a day, in the first six months of this year, the government has said. It blames failure to follow safety rules, including a lack of required ventilation or fire control equipment, for most deaths.

Major accidents persist. In the first nine months of this year, China's coal mines had 11 such incidents with 303 deaths. Gas explosions were the leading cause, the government said.

A blast at the Tunlan coal mine in northern China's Shanxi province in February killed 77 people.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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