NOVOKUZNETSK, Russia – Rescuers searching a coal mine rocked by a methane gas blast found the bodies of several more victims Tuesday, bringing the death toll to 104 a day after Russia's deadliest mining disaster in a decade.
Some 200 workers were in the Ulyanovskaya mine in the coal-rich region known as the Kuzbass at the time of the blast, which occurred early Monday at a depth of around 885 feet, emergency and regional officials said.
Emergency officials put the death toll at 104, while six others were still missing; 93 had been rescued earlier. At one point they had said there were 106 confirmed deaths, but later revised the figure without explanation.
Company officials and safety experts, along with a British citizen and his interpreter, were in the mine examining a British-made hazard monitoring system just before the blast occurred, said Sergei Cheremnov, a spokesman for the regional government in Kemerovo where the mine is located. The British man and the interpreter were killed, and regional governor Aman Tuleyev said about 20 top mine staff including the chief engineer were among the dead.
President Vladimir Putin sent Tuleyev a telegram asking him to convey his sympathy for relatives of victims and support for the injured survivors, and said he was ordering a thorough investigation of the accident, according to the Kremlin.
The massive mine in the city of Novokuznetsk, about 1,850 miles east of Moscow, is operated by Yuzhkuzbassugol, an affiliate of Russian coal and steel company Evraz Group SA, which acquired a 50-percent stake in the company in 2005.
No one answered repeated calls to the company. However, company spokesman Eduard Sivtsov earlier told Russian television channel NTV that rescuers were checking a large section of the mine for survivors.
"Their work is complicated by a great number of obstructions," he said.
Putin ordered Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu to travel to the area, and the industrial regulatory agency Rostekhnadzor had sent investigators.
The incident was the latest to highlight the precarious and hazardous state of Russia's mining industry, which fell into disrepair when government subsidies dried up after the Soviet collapse.
At least 30 workers died in Russian mining accidents last year, including 25 who perished in a fire at a Siberian gold mine. In 2004, a blast at a mine on the outskirts of Novokuznetsk killed 47 workers — the deadliest in the region since 1997, when a methane explosion at a mine in the city killed 67.
In recent years, conglomerates such as Evraz SA have bought up coal mines and similar enterprises and consolidated operations, selling raw and semi-processed material to steel smelters, electricity producers and other major industry. But some government officials in the past have accused private companies of cutting corners on safety measures in order to cut costs.
According to the Evraz Web site, Yuzhkuzbassugol was Russia's leading producer of coking coal, comprising 24 enterprises, including nine coal mines, two enriching plants and other operations supplying coking coal to steel and byproduct plants. Yuzhkuzbassugol's total production in 2005 was 14 million tons of coking coal and 4.4 million tons of steam coal.
Alexander Sergeyev, chairman of the Independent Coal Miners' Union, said the Ulyanovskaya mine operated with new equipment, but he said that human and natural factors always created the potential for accidents. He said miners may have encountered a pocket of methane while working, and he called for new safety regulations to help minimize the chance of such incidents.
"It's necessary, in my view, to pass legislation forbidding underground coal mining without the required (ventilation) from the surface for methane," he said in comments to Ekho Moskvy radio.
Sergeyev also blamed the blast on quota systems that encourage miners to work faster and harvest more coal, potentially leading to careless and fatal errors.
Tuleyev was quoted by ITAR-Tass as saying that families of the dead would each receive at least $25,000 as compensation.