DONETSK, Ukraine Rescuers struggled with flames and fallen rock in trying to reach 23 miners trapped in a coal mine Monday, a day after a methane blast killed at least 77 others in one of Ukraine's deadliest mining disasters of the post-Soviet era.
Nearly 360 miners at the massive Zasyadko mine scrambled to the surface after Sunday's blast, which occurred at a depth of about 3,300 feet. One survivor described clambering over the bodies of his co-workers strewn along an underground rail track and navigating through blinding dust to escape.
The hunt for survivors was still under way Monday but rescuers were battling a stubborn fire blocking their path to the tunnel where the missing were believed trapped, emergency officials said.
Flags flew at half-staff in this industrial city in eastern Ukraine, the heart of the former Soviet republic's coal country.
Dozens of weeping relatives gathered at the mine's Soviet-era headquarters, many breaking into sobs as officials announced the names of workers found dead.
"My son works here. He doesn't answer his mobile phone," one woman told AP Television News tearfully, declining to give her name. "I don't know what's happened. He is not at home. ... He has three little children."
The deadliest accident in Ukraine's coal industry in at least seven years highlighted the lack of attention to safety in a country with some of the world's most dangerous mines.
President Viktor Yushchenko, accusing his Cabinet of not doing enough to reform coal mining, ordered an official panel Sunday to investigate the accident and bring those responsible to account.
However, his political rival, Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, insisted the miners were working in accordance with norms. "This accident has proven once again that a human is powerless before nature," he said.
Twenty-eight of the miners evacuated have been hospitalized, said Emergency Situations Minister Mykola Ranha.
Survivor Vitaliy Kvitkovsky recounted a grisly escape.
"The temperature increased sharply and there was so much dust that I couldn't see anything. ... So I was moving by touch over dead bodies along the rail track," Kvitkovsky said in footage on Channel 5 television.
Experts say Ukraine's mines are dangerous largely because they are so deep, typically more than 3,300 feet underground. Most European coal beds are no deeper than 2,000 feet underground.
More than 75 percent of Ukraine's roughly 200 coal mines are classified as dangerous due to high levels of methane, a natural byproduct of mining that increases in concentration with depth.
Mines must be ventilated to prevent explosions, but some companies rely on outdated ventilation equipment, officials said. Safety violations and negligence add to the problem.
The blast was the deadliest in Ukraine since an explosion at the Barakova mine in the neighboring Luhansk region killed 81 miners in March 2000.
The Zasyadko mine is one of the biggest and best-paying in the region, but salaries are low compared with the rest of Europe.
Natalia Piskun, whose husband was missing, said he earned about $400 a month nearly twice the average wage in Ukraine.
But the mine has been plagued by disaster. Last year, a blast there killed 13 workers. In 2002, an explosion killed 20, and 54 died in a similar accident in 2001. In May 1999, 50 miners were killed in a methane and coal dust blast at Zasyadko.
The mine's office is in central Donetsk, and its shafts and tunnels sprawl for miles beneath the city. One emergency exits is located near a cemetery where miners killed in accidents are buried.
"Our government doesn't care about people; all they need is dollars," said Yekaterina Kirichenko, a retired engineer who came to the mine to support a friend whose son was killed. "Those oligarchs are building cottages for themselves and pay no attention to the mine. They're killing our children."
Since the 1991 Soviet collapse, more than 4,700 miners in Ukraine have been killed. For every 1 million tons of coal brought to the surface in Ukraine, three miners lose their lives, data shows.Despite the dangers, there is growing appetite for Ukraine's rich coal reserves, particularly amid rising natural gas prices. The government has called for production to be increased by a third to 80 million tons this year.
Associated Press writer Maria Danilova contributed to this story from Kiev, Ukraine.