NOVOSHAKHTINSK, Russia – While anxious and weeping relatives waited behind police cordons, rescuers brought to the surface 33 exhausted coal miners who had spent nearly two days trapped deep underground at a southern Russian mine.
But the fate of 13 other miners remained unknown. Emergency workers were unable to locate their position inside the Zapadnaya mine, where flooding trapped the men about a half-mile down.
There was hope for the missing men, according to the region's governor, who said the larger group of miners heard signals from the 13 elsewhere in the mine before their rescue.
The rescued miners — their faces blackened with coal dust and their clothing soaked after spending hours in knee-or waist-high water — emerged tired but relieved, after being lifted to the surface in a small elevator cage used for shaft inspections.
Relatives, many pleading with authorities to give them information, watched from behind police cordons while the first of the rescued miners shuffled out or were carried on stretchers to waiting ambulances.
"How can I not hope?" said Nadezhda Churbanova, waiting for word on her husband, who turned out was among the rescued. "We have two children, we have been together for 22 years. How can I not hope?"
As the miners and rescuers emerged, one happily waved his mining helmet over his head and others refused to be put on stretchers. One broke free and went to a rescue worker to shake hands. "Thanks, folks, for saving us. We are fine now," he said.
All of the rescued miners were taken to Hospital No. 1 of Novoshakhtinsk, where the chief doctor Sergei Bezus said they were suffering from overexposure to cold, shock and exhaustion. Several miners were in serious condition, Bezus said.
The miners were working some 2,625 feet in the Zapadnaya mine Thursday when water from a subterranean lake leaked into a shaft above them, blocking their way to the surface, according to Col. Viktor Shkareda, head of the regional emergency department.
A two-person rescue team that had gone down into the mine early Saturday reached the pitface where the men were trapped and were able to locate and establish contact with 33 of the miners. But the location of the other group, of 13 miners, was not known, and two other teams were searching for them, ITAR-Tass said.
Rostov region Gov. Vladimir Chub said there was reason to believe they were alive. He told the news agency that the mine's director and his deputy were among the 13 and that they managed to send a signal to the other stranded group of 33 miners.
Authorities at first announced by loudspeaker that all 46 miners were alive and well. Later, they said that rescuers saw and spoke with 33 of the trapped miners, but that a group of 13 miners was still unaccounted for, and their condition was unknown.
For relatives of the rescued miners, it was an emotional time. Although police prevented them from coming in contact with them, authorities said relatives could meet their loved ones later at the hospital after their medical checkups.
There were 71 miners working in the Zapadnaya mine in the Rostov-on-Don region, about 600 miles south of Moscow, when the accident happened, Shkareda said.
He said 25 miners managed to escape to other pits and reach the surface after the leak filled several shafts.
Electricity in the mine had been shut off, and the stranded miners had low batteries to light their lamps and no food, Shkareda said. But, he said, workers were able to provide ventilation to allow them to breathe during their ordeal.
Trucks dumped thousands of cubic feet of earth and rock into the mine to plug the leak while rescuers carved tunnels from adjacent mines.
Chub said that the teams were unable to use heavy equipment and had to use manual labor to dig the tunnels, ITAR-Tass reported.
According to the news agency, it was the second such accident at the Zapadnaya mine this year. It said water flooded the mine in February, but there were no people inside at the time.
Accidents are common in the Russian coal industry, and miners stage frequent protests over wage delays and declining safety standards. According to the Independent Coal Miners' Union, 68 miners were killed on the job last year and 98 in 2001.