In Poland’s worst mining disaster since the 1970s, all 23 miners caught in a gas explosion in a pit in the south of the country were confirmed dead on Thursday.
President Lech Kaczynski, who visited the coal mine during the rescue operations, said three days of national mourning would start immediately.
Rescuers had worked through two nights in a desperate search for the men, most of whom had descended into the mine in the town of Ruda Slaska, about 190 miles southwest of Warsaw, to retrieve machinery.
“We went looking for our living colleagues, who worked here with us, but from the start our hope of rescuing anyone alive were almost non-existent,” rescue team leader Jan Gaura told reporters and families of the dead gathered outside the pit.
“With an explosion like this of methane I don’t think they had a chance,” he said, his voice breaking, rain drizzling down his dust-blackened shirt.
The miners were more than 1 km underground in the Halemba mine, one of Poland’s oldest, when Tuesday’s blast occurred.
Kaczynski told reporters there would be a public inquiry into the cause of the disaster and said there were signs some of the miners were inexperienced and insufficiently qualified.
The spokesman for Polish state coal company Kompania Weglowa, Zbigniew Madej, said the bodies of all 23 had been found. “Everything suggests they died at the moment of the explosion,” he said.
Parents of the dead
The Halemba mine, in operation since 1957, lies at the heart of Silesia’s industrial belt. In 1990, 19 miners were killed in the same pit by a gas explosion.
Doctors and psychologists helped the waiting families into cars to be driven home. Michal Swierszcz, one of a team of doctors caring for the bereaved, said it would take relatives a long time to appreciate fully the scale of their loss.
“The real pain will come only in a few days time when they realize their homes are bare, that their father, brother, husband is gone, that the family is no longer whole,” Swierszcz told Reuters.
The death toll is the Polish industry’s highest since a blast at another mine in the same Silesia region in 1979 killed 34, according to PAP news agency.
Poland’s state-run mining industry, built up before the fall of communism in 1989 and starved of investment in recent years, has suffered more than 150 deaths over the last 30 years.