Death toll reaches 80 as rescuers battle Ukraine mine fire

Rescuers fought a raging fire Monday to try to reach trapped workers in a mine in eastern Ukraine as the death toll climbed to 80.

Rescuers fought a raging fire Monday to try to reach 20 trapped workers in a mine in eastern Ukraine asthedeath tollclimbed to 80.

Miners walk at the Zasyadko mine in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Monday. ((Sergei Chuzavkov/Associated Press))

A methane blast ripped throughthe coal mine early Sunday morning about 1,000 metres deep inside one of the country's largest mines.

Nearly 356minersescaped from the mine, officials said.There were conflicting reports earlier Monday about the exact number of dead and trapped miners, buta regional emergency ministry spokesman, Oleksandr Soldatov, said 80 miners were confirmed dead and another 20 were still missing.

Emergency officials said rescuers were battling a stubborn fire and fallen rocksblockedthe tunnel's path to where the missing miners were believed trapped.

Distraught family members gathered outside the headquarters of the Zasyadko mine in the regional capital of Donetskto awaitnews of their loved ones.

Natalia Piskun, a middle-aged woman waiting to hear about her husband, said she would never forgive the mine's director if her husband was found dead.

"If, God forbid, he is lost, I promise I will, if I manage, I will bite this fat beast on his leg! I promise, I swear to you," Piskun told AP Television News.

Climbed over bodies to reach safety

Vitaliy Kvitkovsky, a miner in his 30s who emerged safely, told of how he had to step over his colleagues'bodiesas he climbed to the surface.

A cemetery worker prepares to dig graves in Donetsk, Ukraine, on Monday, a day after the methane blast at the Zasyadko mine. ((Sergei Chuzavkov/Associated Press))

"The temperature increased sharply and there was so much dust that I couldn't see anything," Kvitkovskytold Ukraine's Channel 5 television. "So I was moving by touch over dead bodies along the rail track."

Local authorities have declared three days of mourning.

The explosion marks the deadliest mine accident in the country since 2000 when an explosion at Barakova mine in the eastern Luhansk region killed 81.

The Zasyadko mine has had four other fatal mining disasters in the past eight years. Last year, a blast killed 13 workers. In 2002, an explosion killed 20 people, and 54 died in a similar accident in 2001. In 1999, 50 miners died in a methane and coal dust blast.

The mine's latestdisaster has highlighted the lack of attention to safety in a country with some of the world's most dangerous mines.

President Victor Yushchenko blamed his cabinet for not doing enough to reform coal mining safety and ordered an official panel to investigate the accident.

4,700 miners killed since 1991

Since Ukraine's independenceafter thedissolution of theSoviet Union in 1991, more than 4,700 miners have been killed in the country.

More than 75 per cent of Ukraine's 200 coal mines are classified as dangerous because of high methane concentrations.

Methane is a natural byproduct of mining and its concentration increases with depth. Ventilation is necessary to prevent explosions, but some mines use outdated ventilation equipment.

Experts say Ukraine's mines are dangerous because they are so deep, usually more than 1,000 metres underground. European coal beds, by comparison, run 500 to 600 metres.

Despite dangerous mining conditions, the Ukraine government has called for production to increase by one-third this year as the appetite for country's rich coal reserves rises.

With files from the Associated Press