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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mine Rescuers Suspend Work, 24 Still Missing

APEmergency workers standing near the Raspadskaya mine in the city of Mezhdurechensk in the west Siberian region of Kemerovo on Thursday, May 13.

MEZHDURECHENSK, Kemerovo Region — Rescue operations to find 24 workers missing in a Siberian coal mine explosion were suspended Thursday because of fears of a new blast.

Nonessential workers and miners' relatives were taken away from aboveground areas around the Raspadskaya mine because of safety concerns. One of the blasts at the mine late Saturday seriously damaged buildings on the surface.

The Emergency Situations Ministry said Thursday that the death toll from the explosions had reached 66.

A ministry official, Pavel Plat, told reporters at the mine that the concentration of volatile methane gas in the mine was rising and that several sizable fires were burning about 460 meters underground.

Plat said methane concentration at some points in the mine was 7 percent. A concentration of 1 percent is generally considered to be the limit of safe conditions.

"Our task now is to put out the fires and reduce the gas concentration, and only after this is done will we send people" to the area where the missing miners are believed to be, Plat said.

There have been no reports of contact with any of the missing, and prospects for any survivors appeared to have all but vanished.

Many of the dead were rescue workers who went into the shafts after the first blast late Saturday and were caught in the second explosion four hours later — which was so powerful that it shattered the main shaft and a five-story building at the mine head. The mine is in the Kemerovo region.

There was no information on what set off the blast. 

President Dmitry Medvedev told top law enforcement and security officials to determine what led to the blasts and who might bear responsibility. "The results of this investigation, which presumably will take some time, must be absolutely public, because many of our comrades died there — many of our people," Medvedev said in televised remarks.

The deadliest explosion in Russia's coal mines in decades occurred in March 2007, when 110 miners were killed at another mine in the Kemerovo region.

(AP, Reuters)