At least 10 miners were confirmed killed and nearly two dozen others were missing and feared dead after an explosion ripped through a coal mine before dawn Wednesday in the rebel-held city of Donetsk.
Mine officials said the explosion, which occurred about 6 a.m. local time (0400 GMT), was most likely caused by a buildup of methane gas and not linked to fighting at the nearby frontline in the war between pro-Russian rebels and Ukraine government forces.
Nevertheless, Kyiv suggested the war had made the disaster worse, with Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk accusing the separatists of holding up a rescue effort by restricting access to the area.
Miners arriving for the morning shift were enlisted to assist rescue operations, but work was hampered by limited access to the deep subterranean network.
Rescuers said the chance of finding many survivors was slim.
By mid-afternoon, the Donetsk regional administration confirmed 10 miners were killed, 198 workers had been evacuated from the mine and the fate of 23 others was unknown, Donetsk rebel officials said.
Rescue operations halted
On Wednesday evening, emergency workers were forced to call off the rescue operation due to the threat posed by the high methane levels, Mykhaylo Volynets of the Ukrainian Independent Miners Union told the French news agency AFP.
President Petro Poroshenko sent condolences on the «tragedy» to the victims’ families in a Twitter message.
Outside the imposing Soviet-era gates of the mine, about 30 relatives gathered to wait for news.
One told VOA they had heard no news about family members working in the mine in the past five hours. Another said he had been drinking tea with his uncle Wednesday morning, and now he feared he was trapped down there “in hell.”
At least 15 miners injured in the blast were being treated at a nearby hospital. Most were suffering from severe burns, smoke inhalation and shock.
One miner who was slightly injured told VOA he and seven others were able to escape after the explosion because they were not far into the mine. He said he survived because he was on an «upper level» of the mine, about 1.5 kilometers deep.
«I heard a boom and then darkness,» he told VOA.
The man said he got out with the help of several other miners. «I don’t know what happened to the rest of them [missing miners],» he said.
Another miner Ivan Lazarenko lay in his hospital bed, his arms and chest bandaged and his face covered with cuts, and recounted his escape from the burning mine.
“The bang — and then it threw me so hard that I flew for three or four meters. Immediately the heat — the temperature rose, and here are the consequences. And then the temperature became a little lower, and we started slowly crawling out,” Lazarenko told Reuters.
“Some were crawling, some … got out into the fresh air. Honestly, I don’t know how many people stayed there, but to be honest, I’m shocked,” he added.
The Zasyadko mine has a history of deadly accidents, including one in November 2007 that killed 101 workers, and two more in December 2007 that killed 52 miners and then five more workers.
The Zasyadko coal mine produced 1.4 million tons of coal in 2013, Reuters reported. The mine is in the center of a Donbass region which is Ukraine’s industrial and coal-producing heartland.
In 2014, 99 people were killed in Ukraine’s coal mines, according to mining safety bodies. Thirteen of those deaths were a direct result of the war in the east, where mines have frequently been struck in artillery duels between rebel and Ukrainian government forces.
Eastern Ukraine has seen nearly a year of fighting between Russian-speaking rebels and the Kyiv government. The United Nations reported Tuesday that more than 6,000 people have been killed in the violence.
Meanwhile, International Monetary Fund chief Christine Lagarde said Wednesday the crisis in Ukraine is a huge distraction in efforts to reform the country’s economy and its collapse would not be in Russia’s interest. She added financial support for Kyiv depends on how stable the situation is in eastern Ukraine.
Some material for this report came from Reuters, AFP and AP.