Double explosion kills 80 people at coal mine in eastern Ukraine

Methane, dust touch off blasts that claim nearly all workers on 1 shift

March 12, 2000|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

MOSCOW -- Back-to-back explosions tore through a coal mine in Ukraine yesterday, killing at least 80 miners and injuring seven in the deadliest such accident since the troubled former Soviet republic gained independence in 1991.

The blasts -- the first of volatile methane gas, the second of coal dust -- killed virtually all members of a shift of miners working more than 2,100 feet underground in the Barakov mine in the town of Krasnodon, near the border with Russia and about 450 miles southeast of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital.

"When the accumulated gas exploded, it immediately killed a lot of miners and injured many others, but if it weren't for the dust explosion they still had a chance to survive," said Dmitri D. Kalitventsev, chairman of the Barakov mine's trade union. "The dust explosion killed off the rest."

Kalitventsev said that a second shift of workers was descending into the 2,800-foot-deep shaft when the blast occurred about 1: 30 p.m. but that they were out of range. He said all 277 miners who were underground had been accounted for, so the death toll was not likely to rise by many more. Four of the seven miners who were wounded were in critical condition.

"I can hear women crying loudly," Kalitventsev said by telephone from his office at the mine. "Some of them still have hope because the list of the dead hasn't been read out to them yet -- that moment is being delayed until all the bodies are brought to the surface and properly identified. It may take a lot of time.

"Many bodies, especially those closest to the epicenter of the explosion, will be hard to identify," he said. "But at some point, someone will have to come out to the sobbing women and tell them who is dead."

In response to the disaster, Ukrainian President Leonid D. Kuchma cut short a vacation and canceled a state visit to Poland to return to Kiev.

Ukraine's coal industry has been troubled with accidents since the collapse of the Soviet Union ended its enormous state subsidies. Obsolete mining equipment has been kept in service, and safety has suffered.

Hundreds of Ukrainian miners are killed each year in accidents -- 274 died last year, down from 360 in 1998. Since Jan. 1 this year, 45 miners had been killed before yesterday's accident.

Coal blasts usually are caused by a buildup of methane, a highly explosive gas that seeps out of the rock. Methane is odorless and colorless and can be detected only by meters.

Ukraine's worst previous coal mine blast occurred in 1980, when 66 miners were killed in a methane blast at a mine in the town of Gorskaya. After independence, the worst such accident took place in April 1998, when 63 miners died at the Skochinsky mine near the city of Donetsk.

A lack of funds has meant that Ukraine's 400,000 miners have gone unpaid for months at a time. Kalitventsev said most of the miners killed yesterday were owed at least two months' back wages. Their salaries range from $36 to $127 a month.

"Many of them have complained that they risk their life every day for basically nothing," he said. "Now 80 of them don't know how right they were. They lived a hard life, they worked like slaves with their meager salaries delayed or not paid at all, and they died a horrendous death down there."

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