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Putin Consoles Families At Scene Of Siberian Coal Mine Tragedy

  • RFE/RL

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) visits a victim of the Raspadskaya mine disaster at a hospital in Novokuznetsk today.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) visits a victim of the Raspadskaya mine disaster at a hospital in Novokuznetsk today.

As the death toll from the Raspadskaya mine disaster in Siberia continues to climb, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin visited Siberia's Kemerovo region today to mourn with relatives of victims, visit the injured, and help the community cope.

Russian authorities have raised to 60 the confirmed number of miners and rescue workers who have died as a result of the double explosion in the mine during the weekend. Thirty other miners are still missing. Scores of others were injured by the blasts.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu admitted that "there is less and less hope in the search for survivors."

Shoigu said that, so far, workers have recovered only corpses, including the bodies of 19 rescue workers who descended into the mine after the first explosion and were cut off by a second blast.

A visibly strained Putin -- dressed in black and with his voice choked with emotion -- told distraught relatives in the nearby city of Novokuznetsk that their situation is "so awful and tragic that no words of condolence are appropriate."

Compensation To Families

Putin said all of Russia is suffering from the disaster. He said the Russian government would do all it could to help, including the payment of compensation to relatives of those who died.

Mourners carry flowers and a picture of 50-year-old Fedor Akintiyev, one of the dead miners, at his funeral today in Mezhdurechensk.
"Assistance must be targeted and should not be limited to one-time payments," Putin said. "We should provide housing to the families in need, help organize children's holidays and their further education."

Some officials have suggested the blasts could have been triggered by a sudden buildup of methane gas.

Meeting with local officials in Kemerovo today, Putin said it is important to conduct a thorough investigation into the causes of the tragedy.

"We need to know what caused so many casualties, what caused a tragedy this big," he said. "[We need to know] if mining was carried out properly, if measuring equipment functioned well, and what the managers of the Raspadskaya mine had done to improve its reliability."

Putin later visited the mine in the town of Mezhdurechensk, seeing for himself the blackened craters and burned-out wreckage of surface infrastructure left by the force of the explosions.

The missing men are trapped nearly half a kilometer beneath the surface. With more than 400 kilometers of tunnels, the Raspadskaya mine is larger than the entire Moscow metro system.

'One Of The Best'

The disaster has focused attention on the aging infrastructure at many of Russia's coal mines. But coal miners' union chairman Ivan Mokhnachuk told RFE/RL's Russian Service that the Raspadskaya mine was known to be one of the industry's more modern facilities.

"I've been at [Raspadskaya] many times, and I've seen how it's all organized there," Mokhnachuk said. "As someone who has worked in the mine for 12 years, I can definitely say it's one of the best coal mines [in Russia]. I don't think anyone can tell you at this point what exactly happened there."

Mokhnachuk said that underground facilities at the Raspadskaya mine included mechanized and automated ventilation and decontamination systems to deal with the problem of methane gas.

"There is absolutely no link between the age of the mine and this particular accident. It depends mostly on the coal beds the miners are working on," he said. "They are mining coal of mark K [at Raspadskaya], which means they are working with high-gas-bearing beds prone to sudden methane releases."

Oleg Petropavlovsky, a coal sector analyst at the Moscow-based brokerage firm BKS investment, says explosions do occur naturally in such mines.

Petropavlovsky confirmed that the development of the Raspadskaya mine during the last five years has included the installation of "state-of-the-art" ventilation and safety technology. But he concludes that investigators also should not rule out the possibility of human error.

Other experts say Russian coal miners themselves are sometimes careless about following safety regulations, including rules that forbid the smoking of cigarettes inside mines. Putin said today it is possible that the first blast was caused by human error, including "careless use of fire."

A criminal investigation has been launched for negligence of security rules on the part of the mine's managers. But the mine's owners insist readings showed acceptable methane concentration levels in the shafts at the time of the blast.

Raspadskaya is part-owned by steelmaker Evraz, a company 36 percent-owned by Chelsea Football Club's billionaire chief Roman Abramovich. Shares in the Raspadskaya mine plunged 15 percent in opening trade today on the Moscow stock exchange.

The governor of the Kemerovo region, Aman Tuleyev, insists the mine will be rebuilt.

written by Ron Synovitz, with agency reports