Emergency workers struggled with flooded caverns and flammable gas in their search Wednesday for three miners still missing following an underground explosion in Russia's worst mine disaster in a decade, in which 107 died.
Flags across Russia flew at half-staff, church services were held nationwide and TV stations took entertainment programming off the air Wednesday, an official day of national mourning over a trio of tragedies: the mine disaster, a nursing home fire that killed 62, and a weekend plane crash that killed six.
A methane explosion ripped through the mine in a coal-rich part of Siberia known as the Kuzbass on Monday when about 200 workers were underground. Ninety-three made it to the surface safely. Regional officials said a British employee of the British-German mining consultancy IMC was among the 107 dead.
Emergency officials said Wednesday water, gas and structural damage in the Ulyanovskaya coal mine were slowing the search for three men still missing. Crews were considering using pumps to dry out an area where officials believe the miners were trapped, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said.
Divers sent underground covered 50 meters (165 feet) but were unable to go further because their path was blocked by rubble, Shoigu said. He said authorities had hoped to complete the search Wednesday but said it would take "much more time" because of the flooding and concentration of gas.
Shoigu also cautioned that it would be impossible to quickly pinpoint the precise cause of the blast, saying it would take at least two weeks to collect data from instruments in the mine that could help determine what happened.
Relatives gathered Wednesday in a tent outside the main morgue in Novokuznetsk, a few standing in line at the door as sunshine gave way to a soft snowfall as they waited to be taken in to identify the dead.
However, forensic pathologists said it was proving difficult to identify the badly burned remains, Russia news agencies reported.
Sixty-three victims have been identified, said Valery Korchagin, spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry's regional branch. The first two funerals have been held, reports said.
The explosion highlights the precarious and hazardous state of Russia's mining industry, which fell into disrepair when government subsidies dried up after the Soviet collapse. It was the deadliest mine accident in the Kuzbass region in 60 years, according to the ITAR-Tass news agency.
Nikolai Kultyn, an inspector with federal industrial regulator Rostekhnadzor, said Tuesday there were no gas monitors where the pocket of methane gas had accumulated. He said the high number of deaths was likely due to the fact that many people were in a small area at the time of the blast, reports AP.
Labor union officials blamed the incident in part on quota systems that encourage miners to work faster and dig more coal, potentially leading to errors. Some government officials in the past have accused private companies of cutting corners on safety measures in order to reduce costs.
Regional authorities and the company that operates the mine, Yuzhkuzbassugol, said it would be repaired and opened again, news agencies reported. The company said it could be operating again by July, RIA-Novosti said.
Meanwhile, in Kamyshevatskaya in southern Russia, churches held mourning services Wednesday and mourners placed flowers outside a nursing home where a fire killed 62 people early Tuesday.