33 Miners Killed in Ukraine Blaze

ReutersA Donetsk miner waiting for the fire to be put out.
KIEV -- A fire raced through a coal mine in eastern Ukraine on Sunday, killing 33 miners trapped hundreds of meters underground.

Television pictures showed shocked miners debating the causes of the inferno around the rusting colliery. President Leonid Kuchma sent condolences to the families of those who died. Some were as young as 25.

Kuchma's spokeswoman said the president had vowed to do everything "to urgently find out the reasons" for the fire, which broke out about 570 meters below the surface and was still blazing 12 hours later.

The dispatch of investigators to the site was bound to raise again the question of what to do about Ukraine's aging pits, where on average 6 people die for every 1 million tons of coal produced.

"They have found their bodies, they are all dead," said a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry.

Officials in Donetsk, in the heart of the aging Donbass coal field, said the men had suffocated to death and their bodies were being brought to the surface.

Television pictures showed a thick plume of smoke rising from a vent. The mine shaft, built in Soviet times, was badly rusted, with battered trains moving down lines overgrown with grass and weeds.

Miners, still wearing their red helmets, fought back tears, smoking together in small groups outside the shaft. The more than 70 who were rescued were receiving treatment.

Bereaved families said management had sent miners down for the morning shift well after the fire had broken out.

"People are saying that they knew there was a fire but they still sent people down there," said Olga, sobbing, whose son was killed in the blaze. "Oh my God ... those who came out to change shifts said there was a fire, and they still sent down our children."

Ukrainian media said a fire had also broken out overnight in a coal mine further west, near the town of Krivih Rih. Sixty men working underground were safely brought to the surface and the fire was extinguished.

About 300 miners died last year and almost 150 have been killed so far this year in Ukraine's deep coal mines.

In 2000, at least 80 miners were killed and seven injured when a methane gas explosion ripped through the Barakova coal mine in the eastern town of Luhansk in the country's worst mining disaster since 1991.