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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Ukraine Mourns 81 Miners Killed in 2 Blasts

KRASNODON, Ukraine -- Flags flew at half-mast across Ukraine on Monday as the country began two days of national mourning for 81 coal miners killed in the country's southeast when two apparently back-to-back explosions tore through the Barakov coal mine on Saturday.

The blasts - the first possibly of volatile methane gas, the second of coal dust - killed virtually all members of a shift of miners working more than 600 meters underground, making it the deadliest such accident in decades.

Survivors described a confusing burst, a suffocating cloud of coal dust and the sickening smell of smoke before they were brought to the surface.

"When the accumulated gas exploded, it immediately killed a lot of miners and injured many others, but if it weren't for the dust explosion they still had a chance to survive," said Dmitry Kalitventsev, chairman of the Barakov mine's trade union. "The dust explosion killed off the rest."

Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Ministry specialists were still conducting tests Monday to determine the exact cause of the explosions.

Eighty of 277 miners underground at the time were killed immediately, while one more died in a hospital later. Funerals began Monday.

Ukraine's prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko, appeared on national television Sunday night to call for many of the country's unsafe and unprofitable mines to be shut down, while other officials demanded more funding for the cash-strapped coal industry to prevent future accidents.

While Ukraine has the world's highest coal industry death rate, the Barakov mine hadn't seen major accidents before. Instead, it was known for the passion of its 3,000 workers, ever-ready to launch a strike to demand back wages and stand up for their rights in one of Ukraine's poorest industries.

On Sunday, that enthusiasm was nowhere to be found. A few grief-stricken miners wandered among the crumbling premises of the mine, whose rusty, creaky el evators stand against the dark pyramids of coal rock.

Under the eyes of relatives and other onlookers, rescue workers pulled up the last of the bodies Sunday. Some rescuers, dressed in dirty orange overalls, packed up their gear, the last of the 33 teams who have worked since Saturday to pull the dead up from a shaft about 650 meters underground.

One wounded miner, interviewed in his hospital bed, described the moment of the blast on NTV television. "I heard a burst, then saw cloudy coal dust, there was the smell of fire," the survivor said, his eyes glazed. His name was not given.

"I called the dispatcher, and she said, 'There's been an explosion, you guys are the only ones left, hurry and come back up.'"

A neatly stenciled list of the victims' names hung on a bulletin board at the entrance to the mine's administration building. Next to the list were two red carnations, a notice about volleyball practice and a note advertising a country cabin for sale.

"My son, my blood!" wailed one woman wrapped in a shawl, whose 21-year-old son Andriy Li-Chan-Yuk was on the list.

Three young men stopped next to the list, and one started crying, touching the written names.

"Five friends at once, just like that. Friends, schoolmates," he said, turning away.

The accident underlined the messy state of Ukraine's coal industry. Equipment is outdated and treacherous, and most of Ukraine's more than 400,000 coal workers do not receive their wages on time. Much of eastern Ukraine, once proud of its coal riches, has turned into a wasteland of poverty and environmental destruction.

The average monthly wage of Barakov miners is 920 hryvna (about $170), said Ukraine's Energy Minister Serhiy Tulub, who was at the accident site Sunday.