updated 4/10/2004 10:18:38 PM ET 2004-04-11T02:18:38

An explosion rocked a Russian coal mine on Saturday, sealing a shaft with rubble and killing at least 39 workers. Rescuers were trying to free about 10 others missing underground.

Eight miners were rescued from the Taizhina mine after the apparent explosion of methane gas, said Valery Korchagin, an emergency department spokesman in the Kemerovo region.

Four of the rescued miners were injured, and two of them were hospitalized with burns, he said. Earlier, he had said five other men had emerged from the mine on their own, but he later retracted that statement.

Rescuers found the 29th body on Sunday, close to 24 hours after the blast, and 10 more bodies about six hours later, Korchagin said. About 10 miners remained missing. The bodies were very badly disfigured, making identification very difficult, Korchagin said.

As the missing miners’ anxious relatives gathered in the mine’s administration building to await news, rescuers using shovels and crowbars tried to dig through from the adjacent Osinnikovskaya mine.

Kemerovo governor Aman Tuleyev, who was overseeing the rescue operation, said on Russian television that the shortest path to the blast site was blocked by what appeared to be impassable rubble. The ITAR-Tass news agency said the rescuers were trying to use a roundabout route that stretched three miles.

Searching for signs of life
Korchagin said the rescuers were not using drills or blasting equipment, but confining themselves to working by hand to move the earth gently out of the way. Working all day Saturday and into the night, they stopped their work occasionally for a minute of silence to allow them to hear any signs of life, ITAR-Tass reported.

The blast occurred at a depth of 1,840 feet, and was believed to have been caused by a methane buildup, a duty officer at the Kemerovo regional emergency department said. The shaft was filled with carbon dioxide, the Interfax news agency reported.

Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov ordered the government to form a commission to investigate the blast and sent Industry and Energy Minister Viktor Khristenko to the accident site, the Interfax news agency reported.

Accidents are common in the Russian coal industry, and miners stage frequent protests over wage delays and declining safety standards. Local prosecutors opened a criminal investigation into negligence of safety standards at the Taizhina mine, state television reported.

In September 2002, one miner at Taizhina was killed and two were seriously injured when the roof of a ventilation shaft collapsed during reconstruction work, showering them with rocks.

According to ITAR-Tass, more than 600 miners work at the mine in the city of Osinniki in western Siberia. It is a new mine, opened in 1998, but it was built on the foundation of a closed mine, and the equipment shown on Russian television stations appeared to be run-down.

An explosion killed five miners at a Kemerovo region in January. Another methane blast — possibly sparked by a short circuit — caused a ceiling collapse that killed 12 workers at another mine in the region last June.

In October, icy water flooded a mine in southern Russia, killing two men. Rescuers freed 69 others.

Saturday’s accident came a day before Easter, the most important holiday for Russia’s predominant Orthodox Christian faith and a time when millions of families gather for celebrations.

Coal mining remains one of the most dangerous jobs in poor countries. On Saturday, an explosion at a mine in the northeastern Chinese city of Jixi trapped five miners underground. More than 150 workers have been killed in the city’s mines in the last year.

Last year, more than 6,700 deaths were reported in explosions, cave-ins and other disasters in Chinese mines.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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