The death toll from a Russian coal mine disaster rose to more than 50 on Monday, with more than 200 miners missing and state officials warning that the grim search for survivors was being hampered by a lack of fuel supplies.
More than 200 miners, many working in tight spaces, were working in the metals and minerals mining town of Magnitogorsk when the accident occurred, said Interfax news agency, citing the mine’s owners. The recovery operation was fraught with difficulty, with flooded fuel, gas and water supplies all preventing rescue workers from reaching the site.
Miners returned to work Monday after they had been taken off work Friday by officials overseeing a rescue operation. But some workers were still complaining that the operation lacked motivation, with some saying that more support for the workers was needed.
Officials on Monday raised the death toll to 51, and warned that it was likely to rise further because the number of miners still unaccounted for was 212.
“There are probably hundreds of people living in the mines and some have been taken out of their proper working places,” said Alexei Shostak, a lawmaker for St. Petersburg, in comments to the news agency RIA Novosti.
Officials said oxygen supplies were being pumped into two tunnels in an effort to extend the search for survivors.
The Magnitogorsk mine, which is one of the biggest in Russia, is controlled by Magnitogorsk Metallurgical Plant and it is Putin’s hometown. The city government had earlier sent a special team to help rescue workers as a precaution.
Russian officials also said they have not ruled out the possibility that the accident was caused by sabotage. The Associated Press has not been able to independently confirm that claim.
Musa Ivaylo, an emergency services ministry spokesman, told state TV Rossiya-24 that the lack of oxygen in the mine is preventing rescuers from reaching the trapped miners.
He said that bodies of miners who have already been recovered are going to be taken to morgues in nearby cities and that the names of those still missing will be released once they have been located.
An unidentified worker was quoted by state news agency RIA Novosti as saying that temperatures were low and there was a lack of people who could monitor their oxygen supplies.
“The situation in the mine is tense,” the unnamed worker said.
Rescuers evacuated the flow of water and oxygen to a second pod on Sunday after it became unstable, Shostak, the lawmaker, said.
“There was an explosion and everything completely stopped,” he said.
On Sunday, the spokesman for the Emergencies Ministry, Vladislav Ilyushev, also said that divers were unable to enter the underground tunnels because the grid in the shaft was not being strong enough to support the divers’ weight.
Television footage showed rescuers using cutting tools to pull aside the bottoms of the small holes in the mine, which were creating sinkholes. Other footage showed them floating up and down a 20-foot hole in a mining cart.
Frances D’Emilio contributed from Rome.
(This version CORRECTS year of mine to 1696)