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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bonfire in Mine Kills 4 Students, 3 Rescuers

A fire built by four university students exploring a mazelike mine shaft near Samara led to tragedy: All four died of carbon monoxide poisoning, as did three rescue workers who came to search for the missing spelunkers, emergency officials said Wednesday.

The four students left Saturday for a short weekend trip to Sokolyi Gory, or Falcon Mountains, near Samara and entered the shaft of an old limestone mine.

Prisoners of Stalin's gulag and later German POWs had worked in the 45-kilometer shaft to extract limestone to be used as ballast. The shaft was later abandoned and used by local spelunkers.

"It has long been dangerous to enter," said Sergei Tatarenkov, news editor of the local Samarskiye Izvestiya newspaper.

After the students didn't return home on time, the parents of one of them called the private rescue service 911 and drove rescuers to the spot Monday.

The three rescuers managed to retrieve the body of Andrei Yepifantsev, a student at a local architecture college and amateur caver. His body was found only about 15 meters from the exit.

The rescuers then went to look for the three others and vanished.

The bodies of 19-year-old Samara university students Yelena Yefimova and Irina Kutsai and medical student Svetlana Rezachkina were found in other parts of the shaft Tuesday by state emergency crews.

When deep in the shaft, the students had built a fire, apparently to keep warm. The fire spread quickly and affected wooden supports in the shaft, which were covered in highly toxic tar. The students were killed by carbon monoxide poisoning in the poorly ventilated underground chamber, aggravated by toxic fumes from the tar, emergency officials said.

The rescue workers also succumbed, and their bodies were found Wednesday after state emergency workers and firefighters pumped air into the shaft to clear it of heavy smoke and improve visibility.

The rescue workers went looking for the missing students without oxygen masks and armed only with flashlights and ropes, said Konstantin Sutkovoi of the Emergency Situations Ministry's regional department in Samara.

The private rescue service 911 was not officially registered and its workers lacked sufficient training and equipment, he said. The service's main work had been to break into apartments when the owners locked themselves out.

Sergei Shoigu, emergency situations minister, was equally harsh toward the private rescue service.

He said it was a crime to let workers go into a smoky mine shaft without protective equipment and without taking the necessary precautions.

"I am deeply sorry about the deaths of these young men. A bow and eternal memory to them. As to their bosses, I would prosecute them," Shoigu said at a news conference in Moscow.

The workers were identified as Pavel Meshcheryakov, Dmitry Yeryshev and Alexei Yermakov.

Tatarenkov, the editor, said fences were being installed across the mine shaft's entrances Wednesday to prevent people from going in. There were dozens of entrances hidden in the bush, he noted.

"To find them, a whole expedition is needed, and there will still be Tom Sawyers coming across them by accident," he said. "The best protection is the fresh memory of this awful accident."