MOSCOW – A devastating fire swept through a Siberian coal mine on Thursday, killing 52 miners and rescue workers about 250 meters (820 feet) underground, Russian news reports say.
A few hours after a methane gas explosion and fire filled the mine with toxic fumes, rescuers found 14 bodies but were then forced to halt the search for 38 others due to an accumulation of methane and a high concentration of carbon monoxide fumes from the fire.
The state-run Tass and RIA-Novosti news agencies quoted emergency officials as saying there was no chance of finding any survivors.
The Interfax news agency quoted a representative of the regional administration, who also put the death toll from Thursday’s fire at 52, saying they died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
A total of 285 people were in the Listvyazhnaya mine in the Kemerovo region of southwestern Siberia when a fire broke out and smoke quickly filled the mine through the ventilation system. Rescuers brought to the surface 239 miners, 49 of whom were injured, and found 11 bodies.
Later in the day, six rescuers also died while searching for others trapped in a remote part of the mine, news reports said.
Regional officials declared three days of mourning.
Russia’s deputy prosecutor, Dmitry Demeshin, told reporters that the fire was most likely caused by a methane explosion caused by a spark.
Explosions of methane released from coal deposits during mining are rare, but they cause the most deaths in the coal mining industry.
The Interfax news agency reported that miners have oxygen supplies that usually last for six hours and can only be stretched for a few more hours.
Russia’s investigative committee has launched a criminal investigation into the fire over breaches of security regulations that led to deaths. It said the mine director and two senior executives were detained.
President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences to the families of the dead and ordered the government to offer all necessary assistance to the wounded.
In 2016, 36 miners were killed in a series of methane explosions at a coal mine in Russia’s far north. In the wake of the incident, authorities analyzed the safety of the country’s 58 coal mines and declared 20 of them, or 34%, potentially unsafe.
The Listvyazhnaya mine was not among them at the time, according to media reports.
Russia’s state technology and ecology watchdog, Rostekhnadzor, inspected the mine in April and recorded 139 violations, including violations of fire safety rules.