Rescuers recovered the bodies of 12 miners killed during the fire in a 105-year old gold mine in Russia's Chita region, Siberia. Workers continue to search for 21 other miners trapped 300 meters under the ground.
Fifteen miners were hospitalized for smoke inhalation as a result of the blaze, which broke out Thursday in the Darasun mine in the Chita region, said Yulia Stadnikova, a spokeswoman for the Emergency Situations Ministry.
Stadnikova said the fire, which erupted at a depth of between 85 meters and 130 meters (280 and 430 feet), was contained Thursday evening, but was still burning and rescue efforts were being hampered by damage and smoky conditions. Specialized mine rescue teams were being deployed to the mine, located about 4,700 kilometers (3,000 miles), east of Moscow, she said.
Regional Gov. Vladimir Okunev said at a meeting of emergency officials that the missing miners could be still alive, and authorities were using compressors to pump fresh air into various sections of the mine to help possible survivors, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
About 120 rescue workers were exploring underground tunnels in search for ways to reach those missing, the agency said.
Of the 64 miners working underground when the fire broke out, 31 were rescued or evacuated, including the 15 who were hospitalized. State safety watchdog Rostekhnadzor said in a statement Friday that rescuers have recovered 12 bodies.
"It got smoky. Those of us who could, there was five of us, we got out. The others are back in the mine. Other guys used emergency exits and got to the surface. The remaining are still down there. My brother's there. I can't say anymore," miner Nikolai Bronnikov said in televised comments, visibly distraught.
The gold and metals mine is operated by London-listed Highland Gold Mining PLC. The mine has been plagued with operational problems for over a year, Dow Jones Newswires reported, badly delaying the schedule for raising output and being one of the causes of Highland's net loss last year.
The accident "appears to be the worst in the gold mining industry in years," Rostekhnadzor spokeswoman Elena Kaliberda told The Associated Press.
Officials said earlier that negligence during welding work may have sparked the blaze at the mine, which has been in operation since 1901. Rostekhnadzor said the specific part where the accident occurred has been tapped since 1929.
Work at the mine was suspended for five years in the 1990s and some of the mine infrastructure was refurbished when it went back into operation. The last safety check was conducted in April, the agency said.
The mine produces about 450,000 metric tons of ore yielding some 600 kilograms of gold annually, Rostekhnadzor said.
Accidents are common in the mining industries in the former Soviet Union, where mine operators often lack funds to invest in safety equipment and technical upgrades.
Coal mining has been worst affected by accidents, with 1,744 miners dying while working since 1993, according to Vladimir Rossikhin of the Russian Independent Union of Coal Miners. He said, however, that safety had improved in recent years amid Russia's economic recovery, the AP reports.
The Ministry of Natural Resources said it would carry out a special inspection of safety practices at the country's coal and metallic ore mines, and an environmental official said the ministry would make an especially thorough check of Highland's Russian operations.
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