The death toll from twin explosions in a Siberian mine could go up to 90, Russia's emergencies minister told President Dmitry Medvedev today. The number of dead has risen to at least 32 with almost 60 miners still trapped underground.
"The rescue work is continuing, but unfortunately the work is becoming more complicated and there is less hope that we will find anyone alive," Sergei Shoigu told Medvedev via videoconference, according to news agency Interfax.
More than half of the dead so far are rescuers sent into the mine after an initial blast late Saturday night in Russia's biggest coal mine. Four hours later a second, more powerful, methane explosion rocked the mine killing all 19 of the initial responders, according to Russian news reports citing emergency officials.
The sprawling Raspadskaya mine in western Siberia has 220 miles of tunnels and is 1,600 feet deep. The exact locations of those still underground are not known, and rescuers have only made their way into a tiny fraction of the tunnels.
Of immediate concern are 13 men believed to be trapped in two deep pockets in the mine where water is rising and the drainage system has been damaged. Shoigu said today that rescue teams have 36 to 48 hours to get to the men.
"It is unrealistic in these two locations to reinstall the drainage system in a short period of time and to try to do this would be a waste of time," Shoigu told reporters, according to the Interfax news agency.
The mine's ventilation system has been restored but officials will not turn it on completely for fear of another methane blast if too much air is pumped down into the mine.
Most of the 359 men in the mine Saturday night managed to escape to the surface following the first explosion, but more than 80 miners and rescuers were still underground when the second blast occurred.
According to Shoigu, 69 people have been hospitalized with six being transported to Moscow for treatment.
Rescue operations were put on hold Sunday because of fears over the mine's methane levels, but they resumed Monday morning. Rescuers came from all over the country, the Emergencies Ministry told Interfax that 677 people are now part of the operation.
"It is an extremely serious situation," Medvedev said. "Nevertheless, all the rescue operations will continue until we get to the truth, until we find out what happened and how it happened, and until we make sure that all the rescue measures that have been feasible in this situation have been taken."
Medvedev assigned Russia's prosecutor general to investigate the cause of the explosions.
An official from the owner of the mine, Raspadsky Coal, told reporters that the methane levels at the time of the blasts was normal.
"It's difficult right now to draw any conclusion," said the deputy head of construction according to state-run RIA Novosti. "All the indicators showed that methane levels were normal."
Shoigu told Medvedev that the second blast was stronger than the first because of a buildup of methane. It knocked down a five-story building over the mine and made it nearly impossible to send rescuers down into the mine, he said.
On Sunday night, families and friends of the miners held a vigil. Families of the dead will be given $33,000 and those of the seriously injured $13,000.
A partial owner of the mine is the Evraz steel company, one of whose owners is Russian oligarch and owner of the Chelsea soccer club Roman Abramovich.
If there are no more survivors in the Raspadskaya mine, it would be the deadliest mine disaster in two years. In 2007, 110 were killed after several methane explosions in a mine in the same region.