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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Death Toll at Mine Rises to 106

APRescue worker Yevgeny Semaikin scanning the charred blast site on Tuesday.
NOVOKUZNETSK, Kemerovo Region -- The death toll in the Ulyanovskaya coal mine explosion rose to 106 on Tuesday, making it the deadliest mine disaster in the country's history.

Ninety-three people have been rescued from the mine. As of Tuesday evening, efforts to locate four more ­miners continued, although emergency workers were contending with rising ­water in the shaft, a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry said.

Sergei Petrov, 48, was one of the lucky ones who made it out alive.

Petrov, who operates tunneling equipment at the mine, said Monday's methane blast turned the shaft into a ­living hell.

"We were in the pit at the time of the explosion and this saved us, because the shockwave passed over our heads," Petrov said, recalling the moment when six miners above him were killed.

Petrov was knocked out by the blast and came to minutes later to find two mechanics from his brigade pulling him to safety.

"It was scorching hot in there. The water was boiling in puddles beneath our feet, and the coal dust was thick in the air," said Alexander Kuznetsov, one of the mechanics. "We walked, then crawled, for nearly an hour, one after ­another."

As he set off for his ill-fated shift Monday, electrician Ilya Kokorin told his wife that he was expecting a raise.

"He was in good spirits. He told me that the mine's output was increasing," said the electrician's wife, Nadezhda Kokorina.

As of Tuesday evening, Kokorin was one of two miners receiving treatment at a local hospital in Novokuznetsk for severe facial burns and a broken hip and ankle, said his doctor, Yury Dorofeyev.

Among the dead was Ian Malcolm Robertson, a British project manager with mining consultancy IMC, who was conducting an assessment of the mine's coal reserves at the time of the ­explosion.

"[Robertson] was a financial services consultant," Kemerovo Governor Aman Tuleyev told RIA-Novosti. "The mine had several outstanding loans, and he wanted to evaluate its reserves and operations."

The British Embassy in Moscow said Robertson's family had been notified of his death.

Oleg Shishko, a regional government spokesman, said at least 20 senior mine executives had also perished in the blast.

"The chief engineer and mechanic, a section manager and several deputy directors of the Ulyanovskaya mine were among the victims," Shishko said by telephone from Kemerovo. Ulyanovskaya is owned by mining company Yuzhkuzbassugol, in which Evraz holds a 50 percent stake. (Story, Page 5.)

Authorities continued to investigate the cause of the blast; no consensus had been reached by Tuesday evening.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu ruled out human error as the cause in comments aired on Rossia television. "It was a massive discharge of methane that got ignited."

In a statement released Tuesday, the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Atomic Inspection ruled out equipment malfunction as the cause, although miners interviewed for this article said the mine's equipment, while new, often malfunctioned.

A miner who declined to give his name said methane detectors often showed higher levels of deadly methane on the surface than inside the mine.

When the methane concentration reaches 1.75 percent, power is cut to the mine's equipment to prevent sparks. Miners said such shutdowns were common at the Ulyanovskaya mine.

Miners also said management had been pressing them to work overtime, and that this could contribute to safety violations. The average miner's salary at Ulyanovskaya is 9,000 rubles ($340) per month, miners said.

"It's not easy to fulfill the assigned goals during a normal shift," said Petrov, adding that his brigade had to rush through its work in order earn enough money to support their families.

Prosecutor General Yury Chaika has taken the investigation under his personal control, his office announced. Prosecutors in Novokuznetsk have opened a criminal investigation into possible mine safety violations.

Monday's blast could be heard more than 50 kilometers away. Access to the mine was sealed off. Guards prevented journalists and local officials from entering. Miners' relatives were given no information besides official news releases.

The Emergency Situations Ministry announced that families of miners who were killed in the disaster would receive between 1.3 million rubles ($50,000) and 2 million rubles ($80,000) in compensation, depending upon the number of children in the family.

Yuzhkuzbassugol will pay 1 million rubles to the families of dead miners and cover funeral expenses, Shishko said. The first funerals will be held Thursday.

As of Tuesday afternoon, 37 bodies had been brought to the surface and 22 had been identified, a local Emergency Situations Ministry official told Interfax.

President Vladimir Putin, to whom the mine was dedicated when it opened in 2002, expressed his condolences to the families of the dead on Tuesday in a letter to Tuleyev.

Staff Writer Nabi Abdullaev reported from Moscow.