Thu, Nov 22, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Funerals held for victims of Ukraine mine disaster


Just outside the gates of the vast Zasyadko mine, men accustomed to digging coal took up a grimmer job -- digging graves for colleagues killed in post-Soviet Ukraine's worst mining disaster.

A methane blast ripped through tunnels hundreds of meters below ground on Sunday, killing at least 90 people and rending hearts throughout the city at the center of Ukraine's vital but troubled coal industry.

Flags flew at half-staff nationwide on Tuesday. Hope of finding anyone still alive underground virtually vanished; 10 miners remain unaccounted for.

"Of course, this is a mournful day for all of us -- we are digging graves for our dead comrades," mine electrician Stanislav Omelyanenko said at a cemetery just outside the grounds of the mine.

At that cemetery and others, 17 of the victims were buried on Tuesday.

Zasyadko, one of Ukraine's biggest and best-known mines, has been the site of repeated accidents in the past decade. Ukraine's mines, regarded as among the world's most dangerous, are an important element of the country's economy.

The previous highest death toll in a Ukrainian mine was 81 killed in an explosion in the Luhansk region in 2000.

The bodies pulled from the area where the remaining miners were believed to have been trapped were burnt, indicating that others could not have survived, Mykhailo Volynets, the head of the Independent Trade Union of Miners, said on Monday.

"Unfortunately, there is no hope," Volynets said.

Tuesday was declared a day of mourning across the nation of 47 million. President Viktor Yushchenko, who visited Donetsk on Monday, ordered a government commission to investigate the accident and called for an overhaul of the coal mining sector.

More than three-quarters of Ukraine's roughly 200 coal mines are classified as dangerous because of high levels of methane, the concentration of which increases with depth. Mines must be ventilated to prevent explosions, but some rely on outdated ventilation equipment.

Deputy Prime Minister Andriy Klyuyev said that wasn't the case at Zasyadko.

"This is one of the most advanced mines, and it has the most modern methods of protection against methane," Klyuyev said. "Unfortunately, the deeper the mine, the more problems we encounter."

Experts say Ukraine's mines are dangerous largely because they are so deep, typically running more than 1,000m underground. Most European coal beds lie at a depth of 500m to 600m.

Volynets said that Ukrainian mines routinely neglect safety rules and workers are paid by the amount of coal they extract, not by the hour.

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