Putin Visits Mine as Death Toll Passes 50

APFriends and relatives on Tuesday, May 11, carrying the portrait and coffin of miner Alexander Gorbunov, 37, killed in the Raspadskaya mine.

About 200 rescuers raced against the clock Tuesday to cover 311 kilometers of tunnels in a Siberian coal mine in a frantic search for survivors of weekend explosions that killed at least 52 people.

Prime Minister Vladimir Putin ordered a thorough investigation into the tragedy during a visit to the Raspadskaya mine in the Kemerovo region, as speculation swirled that the blasts might have been caused by human error or even terrorists.

Thirty-eight miners and rescuers remained trapped late Tuesday, three days after explosions shook the mine so violently that they destroyed buildings on the surface and other infrastructure.

Rescuers had managed to examine only 1.5 kilometers of the mine by late Monday, Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday. His ministry was unable to immediately provide an updated figure.

Shoigu, who accompanied Putin to the scene of the disaster Tuesday, has warned that the trapped workers were unlikely to survive past Wednesday morning because of rising flood waters and a broken anti-flooding system.

A total of 359 miners were working Saturday night when a first explosion tore through a tunnel at 11:54 p.m., emergency workers said. A second blast occurred four hours later as rescuers sought to assist miners caught in the first blast, they said.

Human error could be to blame, either through the failure of equipment or violations of coal mining regulations, a source close to the investigation told RIA-Novosti.

But a Raspadskaya miner identified as Nikolai told Moskovsky Komsomolets that he and his co-workers believed that there had been four blasts and they were terrorist attacks.

"My relatives have worked at the mine for more than 20 years, and they say a methane explosion or any other violations couldn't have caused damage of this scale," Nikolai said.

A miner who managed to get to the surface after the first blast told a co-worker, Konstantin Inyushev, who had the day off Saturday, that the equipment had been in order and he had not smelled methane, which often causes mine explosions, RIA-Novosti reported late Monday.

A rescuer told RIA-Novosti on Tuesday that methane levels were normal before the second blast.

A Raspadskaya miner identified as Mikhail told Moskovsky Komsomolets that methane levels were always slightly above the norm in the mine, but that wasn't dangerous.

No serious safety violations have been recorded at the mine over the past 16 months, according to an Energy Ministry report cited by Tayga.info on Tuesday.

The Raspadskaya mine, located in the city of Mezhdurechensk, is the country's biggest producer of coal for the steel industry. It is co-owned by Evraz Group, the steel and mining giant part-owned by billionaire Roman Abramovich.

President Dmitry Medvedev has ordered Prosecutor General Yury Chaika to investigate whether labor laws were observed at the mine, the Kremlin web site said late Monday.

Meanwhile, Putin has ordered Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev to investigate the cause of the blasts.

"We have to know what led to this large number of victims," Putin said in comments carried by the Kemerovo regional administration's web site.

Tuleyev ordered managers and owners of regional coal mines to examine safety conditions, Interfax reported.

Putin also ordered Kemerovo regional authorities to assist relatives of those killed and injured with employment and housing issues.

"You need to solve all the housing issues for the needy families, arrange vacations for the children, solve their education issues," Putin said at a meeting of officials in Mezhdurechensk, the government's web site reported.

"If there's such a need, you must help relatives who lost a breadwinner to find jobs," Putin said.

Late Monday, Medvedev signed a federal law introducing extra monthly retirement payments from the pension fund to miners, the Kremlin web site said. The government has been raising pensions steadily in recent months.

Investigative Committee head Alexander Bastrykin flew to the Kemerovo region Tuesday to coordinate the work of investigators, his agency said in a statement.

It will take several years to repair the damage to the mine caused by the blasts, mine director Gennady Kozovoi said, Interfax reported.

Medvedev visited four miners hospitalized in serious but stable condition in Moscow.

State television showed Putin visiting several miners at a Novokuznetsk hospital early Tuesday.

Putin on Tuesday also met with grieving relatives. "I want you to know that we are feeling it as deeply as you are," Putin said, the government's web site reported.

Rescuers lifted five of the 52 bodies to the surface Tuesday.

Ninety-nine miners and rescuers, including six in Moscow, remained hospitalized Tuesday, the Kemerovo regional administration's web site said.

The first six miners were buried Tuesday in emotional funerals broadcast on state television.

Russia will produce 3 percent to 5 percent less coking coal in 2010 because of the Raspadskaya blasts, RIA-Novosti reported, citing an industry expert.

Evraz Group will compensate for the loss of coal supplies from Raspadskaya by supplying coal from the regional Kuznetskaya and Abashevskaya mines, which have enough reserve coal to cover for Raspadskaya for the next two weeks, RIA-Novosti said.

Raspadskaya shares tumbled by 23 percent on the MICEX Index to close at 131.89 rubles on Tuesday.

See also:

Deadly Explosions Raise Questions over Russian Mining Safety

New Explosion Rocks Russian Mine – 6 Dead, 26 Presumed Dead

Mine Collapse in Northern Russia Kills At Least Four

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