Death Toll Reaches 80 in Ukraine Blast

APMiners digging a grave in a cemetery in Donetsk on Monday as hopes of finding more survivors of the blast faded.
DONETSK, Ukraine -- Hopes dimmed Monday as rescuers battled a raging fire and fallen rock in search of 20 miners who were buried deep inside a coal mine in eastern Ukraine following a powerful methane blast that killed at least 80.

The blast at the massive Zasyadko mine -- one of the country's biggest and best known -- stands to become the deadliest in Ukraine's post-Soviet history. It also highlighted the dangers of the country's once proud coal industry.

Dozens of weeping relatives continued to wait at the mine's headquarters for word on the fate of their relatives. Cries and sobs broke out as officials called out names of miners found dead. Women buried their faces in their hands to stifle cries, others extended their hands into the air and some fainted.

"My son works here. He doesn't answer his mobile phone," a sobbing middle-aged woman said. She declined to give her name. "I don't know what's happened. He is not at home. ... He has three little children."

A regional emergency ministry spokesman said 80 miners were confirmed dead. Another 20 were still missing, Oleksandr Soldatov said.

Of the 356 miners evacuated, 28 had been hospitalized, Emergency Situations Ministry spokesman Mykola Ranha said.

President Viktor Yushchenko ordered a government commission to investigate the accident and called for an overhaul of the coal-mining sector.

"The tragedy in Donetsk is yet another challenge not only for Ukraine's coal-mining industry, but for the whole government," Yushchenko said in a statement.

As hours passed, hope of finding anyone alive deep underground grew fainter. Rescue workers struggled with a stubborn fire, and the tunnel where the miners were believed to be buried was also blocked by a rockslide triggered by the explosion, emergency officials said.

"We are not losing hope, but chances are slim," said Marina Nikitina, spokeswoman for the government's industrial safety watchdog.

Mykhailo Volynets, head of the Independent Trade Union of Miners, said the bodies pulled out from the area where the other 30 miners were believed to be trapped were burnt -- indicating that the others could not have survived.

"Unfortunately, there is no hope," Volynets said.

The blast was the deadliest accident in Ukraine's coal industry in at least seven years. A March 2000 explosion at in the neighboring Luhansk region that killed 81 had been the country's worst mining disaster since the Soviet collapse.

Located in the very heart of Donetsk, the 49-year-old mine sprawls for kilometers and is a maze of shafts and tunnels beneath the city. One emergency exit is near a city cemetery where miners killed in accidents here are buried.