17 Dead After Explosion at Ukraine Coal Mine

PHOTO: Miners sit on a bus after an explosion at the Zasyadko coal mine in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 4, 2015.Vadim Ghirda/AP Photo
Miners sit on a bus after an explosion at the Zasyadko coal mine in Donetsk, Ukraine, March 4, 2015.

Dozens of miners were trapped, and at least 17 died, after an explosion at a coal mine in Donetsk, eastern Ukraine Wednesday, and a rescue operation is underway, officials said.

"Rescue teams are battling poisonous gases as they are trying to track down 32 trapped or missing miners," Vladimir Goryachev, deputy head of mine safety services, told ABC News. "They reached 700 meters, and miners are trapped almost 1,300 meters [more than 4,200 feet] below the ground. ... We had no communication with trapped miners since the blast occurred."

Of 47 miners in the section of the mine where the blast occurred, 14 managed to escape, Goryachev said.

"There are three critically burned patients among the five survivors that entered his hospital, with burns covering 75 to 100 percent of their bodies," Dr. Emil Fital, the head of a team of burn specialists who met the injured survivors, told ABC News.

The Zasyadko coal mine was the site of one of Ukraine's deadliest mining disasters, a 2007 accident in which more than 100 people died. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, about 250 miners are believed to have died in accidents and explosions there.

Donetsk has been shelled in the last nine months in fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russian rebels, but an emergency ministry official told ABC News that there was no fighting in the area since an internationally–sponsored ceasefire agreement came into effect in recent weeks.

"It was not due to artillery shelling, it was most likely a gas-air explosion," rescue services official Yuliana Bedilo said.

The conflict in eastern Ukraine has, to date, killed more than 6,000 people.

The rebel-held cities of Donetsk and Lugansk are located in coal-rich region of Donbass. The local economy is mainly coal mining or black metallurgy. A local soccer club is called Shaktar, a word for a miner in Ukrainian.