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Russian Mining City Grapples With Yet Another Tragedy

  • Sergei Khazov-Cassia
  • Robert Coalson

A miner pays his respect to those missing in the February 25 Severnaya coal mine gas explosion.

A miner pays his respect to those missing in the February 25 Severnaya coal mine gas explosion.

VORKUTA, Russia -- Coal miner Mikhail Momot had a day off on February 25. At about 2:45 p.m., he'd just returned home from shopping when he noticed cars and trucks from the Emergency Situations Ministry speeding through town on their way to the Severnaya coal mine.

Without thinking, he rushed to the mine himself. There he learned of a serious explosion in the pit, and until 3 a.m. he labored with rescuers to reach the miners missing nearly 800 meters below the surface. Mikhail's older brother, Konstantin, was among them.

The frantic initial rescue efforts after the methane explosions in the mine succeeded in bringing around 80 miners to the surface alive. But four other miners were left dead and 26 more were missing.

Yevgeny Gurenko was in the mine. At 2:15, the electricity went out and the workers were plunged into inky darkness. It was a common occurrence in Severnaya -- whenever methane detectors indicated levels above 1.3 percent, work was routinely stopped to prevent a stray spark from igniting the highly flammable gas. Gurenko contacted his supervisor on the surface and was told that power was out throughout the entire mine -- something serious had happened.

Mikhail Momot

Mikhail Momot

Gurenko began making his way to the surface. On the way, he was passed by two managers going the other way, rushing to find out what had happened. When he was in the lift on the way to the top, Gurenko felt a huge explosion. Later he learned that the two managers he'd seen moments before had been torn to pieces by the blast.

For more than two days, miners and rescue workers sought to reach the missing men. There was no contact with any of them, but hope remained that they were still alive. However, conditions in the mine were dangerous. Methane levels were beyond all safety limits and the explosions had started fires that raged deep underground. Mine officials and Emergency Situations Ministry bureaucrats argued about whether it was too dangerous to continue.

On February 28, another huge explosion at Severnaya killed six rescue workers. The rescue operation was halted. A few days later, the missing miners were declared dead and officials decided to flood the mine in order to extinguish the fire and prevent a major collapse.

Konstantin Momot, 41, who is believed to have been at the very heart of the original explosion, was among those presumed dead.

Konstantin Momot was assumed killed in the blast.

Konstantin Momot was assumed killed in the blast.

'No One Was Going To Stop Work'

Newly widowed Svetlana Momot lives in a two-room apartment on the edge of Vorkuta with her two daughters, 16-year-old Alina and 6-year-old Nastya. Konstantin also left behind two sons from a previous marriage who live with his first wife in eastern Ukraine. Just a few months ago, Konstantin became a grandfather.

Svetlana -- her eyes red but tearless -- is surprisingly eager to talk about Konstantin. He loved fishing and gathering mushrooms, she says. He loved to cook and spent hours taking care of the 300-liter fish tank that dominates the apartment's main room.

"He would come home from work and stare at this underwater world instead of watching television," she says.

Konstantin died less than four years shy of the retirement age of 45. He'd worked at Severnaya since 1993. He was already making plans to get a mortgage and buy a house with his parents in Belgorod Oblast, far from the brutal winters and dirty coal pits of Far Northern Vorkuta.

Svetlana says that in the week before the disaster, Konstantin had spoken often of the methane problem. Apparently, it was topic No. 1 among the miners. Why did they keep working?

"That's the way the management is," Svetlana says. "No one was going to stop work at the mine."

'Natural Anomalies'

Methane levels have been a chronic problem at Severnaya. Most of the miners who agreed to speak with RFE/RL said the levels regularly exceeded the norms but when they complained, they were told they could quit anytime they wanted.

Although the conveyer was supposed to be shut down when levels of 1.3 percent were recorded, miner Nazim Gadzhiyev says it kept running even when the indicators showed 2 percent or more. Sometimes detectors held near the ceiling of the mine, where the lighter-than-air methane collects, could be made to read 99 percent.

Aleksandr Proskuryakov told Novaya Gazeta that on February 11 his personal methane detector registered 5 percent. The conveyer was shut down when the general detector reached 3.8 percent.

When RFE/RL phoned Proskuryakov a few days later to discuss the methane problem, he refused to talk. "I am at the Investigative Committee right now," he said. "I am not going to talk anymore. You understand why. I'm sorry."

PHOTO GALLERY: Vorkuta -- A Town Steeped In Tragedy

Miners say Investigative Committee officials have been carting away documents ever since the accident. The official explanation for the disaster is "natural anomalies," but most of the miners who were willing to talk think safety norms have long been lax.

"The mining engineer, the director, the section head, the deputy section head," miner Gadzhiyev says when asked whom he thinks should be investigated. "I have worked underground for 28 years and I have no idea what ['natural anomalies'] could mean."

A City That Is No Stranger To Bad News

Vorkuta miners are theoretically represented by two labor unions, but miners laugh at the mention of them. "I have no idea what they do at all," Mikhail Momot says. The process of flooding and then repairing the Severnaya mine could take as long as two years, a serious worry for the more than 1,000 miners who work there. The company has assured workers they will be offered work in other mines, but the miners are skeptical.

Vorkuta is a brutal place, a city of 70,000 just north of the Arctic Circle that is almost completely dependent on coal mining. It was founded in 1932 as one of the most notorious camps of the Stalin-era GULAG system. Of the initial group of 1,500 prisoners who were sent to the barren wasteland, only 54 survived the ordeal.

A memorial to Ukrainian gulag prisoners near the abandoned Yurshor town in Vorkuta

A memorial to Ukrainian gulag prisoners near the abandoned Yurshor town in Vorkuta

Nowadays, sons continue to follow their fathers into the mines.

For the month of January, a huge red star burned brightly over the city, signifying that the mines had made their production quotas for 2015. The Severnaya mine provided one-quarter of all the coal consumed by its parent company, steelmaker Severstal.

Now, the star is dark. Instead, outside the Severnaya mine's administrative office a tall wooden cross has been erected and decorated with the photographs of all the dead miners. The base of the cross is covered with frozen flowers. Chopin plays from a loudspeaker as people stand silently or sob quietly.

Twenty-eight-year-old Vitaly Nizhelsky's photograph is among those hanging on the cross. Although he was an ordinary miner, he was studying mine engineering at Ukhta State Technical University as a long-distance student.

"He was my pride, my support in my old age," his father, Sergei, tells RFE/RL. Sergei was a miner himself, having worked for 23 years in the nearby Vorkuta mine. Shortly after he retired in 2013, an explosion there killed 19 miners.

"What happened there has happened here as well," he says. "But there at least they gave out the bodies. And now? Who is there for me to bury?"

Vitaly's brother, Denis, is also a miner who worked on the same brigade as his brother until four years ago, when he was fired in a dispute with management. If not for that, he'd likely be dead now as well.

Asked what he plans to do now, Denis gives the only answer Vorkuta offers: "I'm looking for work in the pits."

RFE/RL's Russian Service correspondent Sergei Khazov-Cassia reported from Vorkuta. Robert Coalson contributed from Prague
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    Robert Coalson

    Robert Coalson covers Russia, the Balkans, and Eastern Europe. Send story tips to coalsonr@rferl.org

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