Eleven more Russian miners rescued

Thursday, October 30, 2003

NOVOSHAKHTINSK, Russia -- Blinking in the sunlight they hadn't seen in a week, 11 of 13 coal miners who were trapped in a deep shaft in southern Russia were brought to the surface alive Wednesday. One said the men didn't have long to live when help arrived.

"When we saw the rescuers, that was like the appearance of Christ before the people," said Vasily Avdeyev, one of the freed miners whose coal-blackened, grim faces attested to their ordeal.

One of the other two miners remained missing late Thursday and the last was found dead, apparently crushed against mine walls by the waters that rushed in from an underground lake and trapped the men last Thursday.

There were 71 men working about 2,625 feet underground when the icy water began roaring into the mine, named Zapadnaya. Twenty-five managed to escape, 33 others were rescued Saturday, and workers tunneled through solid rock from an adjacent mine to reach the rest.

As they emerged, relatives who had kept vigil cried out their names. A crowd of doctors, police and rescue workers surrounded the men as they were hustled into ambulances, their shoulders wrapped in cheery pink and blue blankets. Some reached out to pat the miners on the back in a restrained show of relief.

Nikolai Lazaryev, an uncle of one of the rescued men, said the long wait was a grueling ordeal.

"We could not live -- we just existed," he said.

The success of the rescue operation boosted spirits in this hardscrabble coal-mining region, but a gas explosion that killed five in a mine on the other side of the country was a grim reminder of the dangers facing workers in Russia's deteriorating mines.

Sixty-six other miners were rescued after that blast, in the town of Partizansk, said Viktor Beltsov, a spokesman for the Emergency Situations Ministry. After learning of the rescue and the Far East blast, President Vladimir Putin told a Kremlin meeting that to his regret, mine accidents in Russia "were taking on a systematic character."

Working in poor conditions, often going unpaid for months, Russia's miners have learned to be forbearing and the seven days of being trapped in the Zapadnaya mine tested the 11 men harshly.

"We had one or two mouthfuls of water from the shaft, but it was undrinkable, it was very bad," miner Vladimir Mikhailov said in the hospital where the men were taken. "By the time we came out, we had only one lamp out of the original 12, so we switched it on and off, on and off. ... In the last hours we were fumbling in darkness."

The miners had climbed an incline that kept them out of the frigid water, but they feared their refuge wouldn't last.

In the last hours before rescuers reached them, "we felt that the water level was rising and there was little oxygen and people were not feeling well," said miner Vasily Karlov.

Avdeyev, who is the mine director, alternated between trying to buck up the other miners and being wracked by his own fear.

"We had nothing to eat, so I delivered a speech saying that a 20-day fasting has not ever hurt anyone and that it is good for the health," he said.

But, he acknowledged, "we understood that obviously we would die."

The deputy chief doctor at the hospital, Yuri Grishchenko, said all 11 rescued men were suffering from exposure and stress.

"The guys looked fine for people who have been trapped in a mine for six days. They came out themselves," said Alexander Smetalin, one of the rescuers. "They were found in the northern part of the mine. They were lying there all together."

Emergency workers had blasted and drilled through solid rock from an adjacent mine to reach the miners. In the meantime, hundreds of tons of rock, soil and reinforced concrete pillars had been dumped into the shaft to stanch the flood.

According to the ITAR-Tass news agency, it was the second such accident at the mine this year. Water flooded the mine in February, it said, but no one was inside.

Accidents are common in the Russian coal industry, and miners stage frequent protests over wage delays and declining safety standards. According to the Independent Coal Miners' Union, 68 miners were killed on the job last year and 98 in 2001.

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