DONETSK, Ukraine – An explosion at a coal mine in war-torn eastern Ukraine killed 32 workers Wednesday, the speaker of Ukraine’s parliament said. Rebels who control the area confirmed only one death but acknowledged that some miners were still trapped.
Volodymyr Groysman told lawmakers that the accident happened before dawn at a mine in the city of Donetsk, which is under the control of separatist rebels. It was unclear what the source was for Groysman’s information.
Separatist authorities in Donetsk said in a statement that the blast occurred at a depth of more than 1,000 metres and that 230 workers were in the mine at the time. The statement said the explosion was caused by a mixture of gas and air – a common cause of industrial mining accidents.
Rebel authorities said the incident at the Zasyadko mine was not caused by shelling. The east of Ukraine has been wracked by fighting between government forces and Russian-backed rebels for almost a year, during which more than 6,000 people have been killed.
Rescue operations are continuing and at least 157 workers have been evacuated from the mine, Donetsk rebel officials said.
The mouthpiece news agency for rebels in Donetsk quoted a city official as saying that the high death toll cited by Groysman could be not confirmed.
“For now, I can say only that 32 people are below ground. One person has died,” Ivan Prikhodko, administrative head of the Kyiv district, where the affected mine is located, told Donetsk News Agency. “Until rescuers get to them, speaking about how many people have died would be unethical to say the least.”
A rescue services representative at the mine, Yuliana Bedilo, also said only one death had been confirmed.
‘Fourteen people have been sent to medical treatment centres in Donetsk,” rebel authorities said in their statement.
A chief doctor at a city clinic, Emil Fistal, was quoted in the statement as saying six miners were in grave condition.
Several separatist officials trickled into the grounds of the mine throughout the morning, but all refused flatly to respond to questions or provide details about how many workers were still trapped below ground.
Families of miners seeking information about their loved-ones expressed frustration that they could not get information. Valentina Petrova came looking for her 47-year-old son, Vladimir.
‘He was supposed to retire next year. Everyone is angry that they say on TV that 32 people died but nobody tells us anything,” she said.
Miners arriving for their morning shift, in the hours after the accident, complained volubly about the long history of safety violations at the Zasyadko mine. One, who gave only his first name, Kostya, said two of his brothers had been injured in earlier blasts at the same mine.
“We work like crazy for peanuts. We want this place to be safe. We want our children to be able to work here,” he told The Associated Press.
In November 2007, 101 labourers were killed in an accident at the Zasyadko mine, which is considered particularly dangerous for its high methane content. A further 52 workers were killed there in early December that same year, and five miners were killed in another episode later that month.