Eight miners emerged yesterday from a burning Siberian gold mine after two days trapped hundreds of meters underground, but the fate of at least nine others remained unknown in an accident that killed at least 16.
Three miners came up early in the day without the aid of rescuers. Footage on Russian state television showed the three walking out of the mine elevator. They appeared a bit stunned but otherwise uninjured.
One of them, Nikolai Selishev, said he and his companions had found an area where fresh air was blowing in and stayed there until smoke and gas lifted enough for them to move further.
Five other miners were later found at a depth of 460m and brought up by rescuers, according to a statement from the administration of the Chita region, where the mine is located. Their condition was not immediately reported.
The statement said 16 other miners had died and nine were missing.
The blaze broke out on Thursday in the Darasun mine some 4,700km east of Moscow. Within hours, 31 miners -- about half the crew of 63 that was working that shift -- made it to the surface. Fifteen of them were in hospital for smoke inhalation on Friday, Emergency Situations Ministry spokeswoman Yulia Stadnikova said.
Stadnikova said the fire, which erupted at a depth of between 85m and 130m, was contained on Thursday evening, but was still burning and rescue efforts were being hampered by damage and smoky conditions.
Specialized mine rescue teams were sent to the mine and a total of about 300 rescuers were taking part in the physically and emotionally taxing efforts.
Miners' relatives gathered outside, waiting in the cold for news.
Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu arrived at the site yesterday to lead a commission charged with investigating the cause of the fire and aiding relatives of victims.
The gold and metals mine is operated by London-listed Highland Gold Mining. The 105-year-old mine has been plagued with operational problems for over a year, Dow Jones reported, badly delaying the schedule for raising output and contributing to Highland's net loss last year.
The accident ``appears to be the worst in the gold mining industry in years,'' said Elena Kaliberda, a spokeswoman for Rostekhnadzor, the government safety watchdog agency.
Officials said earlier that negligence during welding work may have sparked the blaze at the mine, which has been in operation since 1901. Rostekhnadzor said the specific part of the mine where the accident occurred has been tapped since 1929.
Work at the mine was suspended for five years in the 1990s and some mine infrastructure was refurbished when it resumed operation. The last safety check was conducted in April, the agency said.
The mine produces about 450,000 tonnes of ore yielding some 600kg of gold annually, Rostekhnadzor said.
Accidents are common in the mining industries in the former Soviet Union, where mine operators often lack funds to invest in safety equipment and technical upgrades.
Coal mining has been worst affected by accidents, with 1,744 miners dying since 1993.