At the time of the blasts, some 370 miners were working in the Raspadskaya mine, the largest underground coal mine in Russia. The second, more powerful explosion reduced above-ground buildings to rubble and shattered the main air shaft, cutting ventilation to miners still underground and to rescue workers who had been sent in to find survivors from the first blast.
One survivor told Moscow Echo radio, They were late in pumping air into the shafts. They will only carry out corpses now.
Company officials claimed the mine had normal methane levels when the first blast occurred and that there was an inexplicable sudden buildup of this gas. This argument was further promoted by Vadim Potapov, of the Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Coal and Coal Mining. In an interview with Itar-Tass, he argued that such an emission taking place deep underground could be considered a mystery of nature.
However, miners reported in interviews with Russian newspapers that rising methane levels were being ignored by the company. A common practice was to cover methane sensors with wet rags or quilted work coats so production could continue if gas levels rose, reported the New York Times.
In 2008 government inspectors closed the mine for 15 days, citing safety violations involving conveyor belts and rail transport. This past January one miner was killed when the roof collapsed.
The Raspadskaya mine produces 10 percent of Russias coking coal, which is used in steel production. It has the highest production of any coal mine in Russia and is one of the deepest, with increased danger from methane gas buildup.
Highland Gold, a UK mining company, operates the Raspadskaya mine. The mine is part owned by Evraz Group, a Russian steelmaking company in which Russian billionaire businessman Roman Abramovich holds 36 percent of the shares. Evraz is also a major owner of two nearby mines in Siberia where explosions killed more than 140 miners in 2007.
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