Labored breaths, distant blasts, failed escapes- Survivor recou

Saturday, November 1, 2003

NOVOSHAKHTINSK, Russia -- Coal miner Valery Grabovsky heard only the breathing of his companions and the concussion of distant blasts as he lay in pitch black under hundreds of feet of rock. One sound brought comfort, the other fear.

The explosions Wednesday were encouraging -- a sign that rescuers were trying to blast open a passage to where Grabovsky and 12 other miners had been trapped for a week by icy water that flooded the shaft.

It was the sound of breathing that distressed him. His fellow miners were starting to gasp and rasp, a sign their oxygen was running dangerously short.

"We understood that if the oxygen situation didn't improve, if the water didn't recede ... that we had five or six hours left to us," the 50-year-old Grabovsky told The Associated Press from his hospital bed.

"I thought the whole time that they would find us," he said.

Then his composure ebbed for a moment.

"I turned to God with prayers that he would hear me and instruct me in the right actions," he said, tears welling in his eyes briefly before returning to the tale of torment and rescue.

Grabovsky was among 71 men working in the Zapadnaya mine in southern Russia on Oct. 23 when water burst in from a vast underground lake. Twenty-five of them managed to get out, but 46 others found their escape route blocked; 33 of those were rescued two days later.

No one on the surface knew exactly where the 13 others were or whether they were alive. Still, rescuers drove on around the clock, digging a tunnel from an adjacent mine named Komsomolskaya Pravda.

Along with his worries about air and water and food, Grabovsky had something else weighing on his mind.

"The whole time, all my thoughts were on the fact that I was the oldest one here and therefore I had responsibility not only for myself, but for my comrades," he said.

That meant drawing on 30 years of experience in many mines to guide the younger men on how to conserve their lantern batteries and the air in their breathing apparatuses, which the miners became increasingly dependent on as the oxygen level underground dropped.

It meant trying to dissuade them from making exhausting forays through corridors less than 4 feet high in frantic searches for escape routes they knew didn't exist.

His authority as the oldest also meant that he had to keep the others from despairing -- and they say he was superb at that.

"Grabovsky bore us up," miner Vladimir Nertekhin told the newspaper Izvestia.

Sometimes he couldn't keep them together. As the days dragged on, four miners decided to go off on their own to search for an escape.

"I was against it, but they didn't listen to me," Grabovsky said. "After a couple of hours, one of them came back, completely frozen. We had to warm him up and give him oxygen."

The others didn't return.

On Wednesday morning, hearing explosions getting closer, Grabovsky said he assembled the remaining men and headed toward the blasts. After going about 325 feet, they found two of the miners who had left on their own.

"They were wet and almost senseless from lack of oxygen," he said. Beside them lay the body of the fourth miner, who had been swept up in the flood and slammed into a wall.

They left the corpse and one of the drenched miners and pressed on toward the blasts, but the others faded and Grabovsky went on by himself, he said.

"Then, it seemed to me that I saw a light. I stopped and cried out," he said. "I ran farther and saw two miners in gas masks."

"One of them took off his gas mask and said they were from (a rescue unit) and they had come for us from Komsomolskaya Pravda. I probably never was so happy in my life as I was at that moment."

Grabovsky and 10 others were taken out of the mine alive and the dead miner's body came out last. Russian officials called off their search Friday for the last trapped miner amid fears that unstable rock layers put the rescuers' lives at risk.

The surviving miners returned to a world that was bewilderingly foreign after a week of darkness and dread.

"I could hardly see anything: After such a long time in the darkness my eyes hurt. Later, my son Volodya told me he had cried out 'Papa, Papa,' from the crowd, but I didn't even hear him," Grabovsky said.

Now he's readjusted to light and clean air and life on the surface, and thinking ahead.

"I've already made a decision, lying here in the hospital -- I'm probably going to retire. After all, I'm 50 years old and I'll be a grandfather in March," he said.

"I'd always said that Zapadnaya would be my last mine -- and it looks like that's the way it turned out."

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