By Tom Balmforth
MOSCOW – Police in Siberia arrested two safety inspectors suspected of criminal negligence on Friday as Russia’s coal mining heartland mourned the deaths of 51 people in one of its worst mine disasters since Soviet times.
Regional governor Sergei Tsivilyov said a methane explosion was the likely cause of Thursday’s accident at the mine near the town of Belovo. The dead included five rescuers sent to bring out dozens of men stuck deep underground, he said.
“There was an explosion at this mine 18 years ago and 13 people died. The whole village went mad. Just imagine how they’re going to bury 46 (miners),” said Inna Piyalkina, whose 55-year-old husband was among the dead.
The Investigative Committee, a body that probes serious crimes, said they would charge and remand in custody two safety inspectors who issued a certificate for the mine this month but had not actually checked the facility.
Its move followed the arrest late on Thursday of three managers of the Listvyazhnaya mine, including its director, on suspicion of flouting safety standards.
The local prosecutor’s office said on Friday it was carrying out safety checks at other mines across the region and had already opened 28 cases into violations found at six companies. It did not name them.
The mine, located some 3,500 km (2,200 miles) east of Moscow in the Kemerovo region, is owned by SDS-Ugol, a company that produces 27 million tonnes of coal annually and is part of the privately-owned Siberian Business Union. The SBU did not reply to a request for comment.
Piyalkina said her husband, who had worked in the mine for 33 years, had recently complained of safety problems.
“Methane was over the limit. My husband came home from work every day and said it wouldn’t end well. It was so over the limit that all the sensors were beeping,” she told reporters after visiting the facility on Friday.
She said there had been a fire in a part of the mine on the night of Nov. 14-15.
“No measures were taken. Here’s the result. Just 10 days have gone by and they’re all lying in there,” she said.
In a rare snippet of good news, one of the rescuers who had been assumed dead was suddenly found alive on Friday and rushed to hospital where he was put in intensive care, the Emergency Services said.
Emergency workers, who had been forced to halt their rescue efforts on Thursday due to the risk of an explosion, brought the bodies of three miners and three rescuers to the surface on Friday, the regional governor said.
Four other people, including a second rescue worker, were in intensive care, TASS news agency cited doctors as saying. A total of 50 people were in hospital, it said.
The accident was Russia’s worst since 2010 when explosions killed 91 people at the Raspadskaya mine in the same region.
In 2007, the region, known informally as Kuzbass, was the site of the worst mining accident since the collapse of the Soviet Union when an explosion at the Ulyanovskaya mine claimed the lives of more than 100 people.