Twelve Ukrainian miners still missing after methane blast

Ukrainian rescue workers Tuesday were still looking for at least 12 miners unaccounted for after a massive underground explosion, the Interfax news agency reported.

"As long as our people are underground, we are going to keep on looking," said Oleksander Turchinov, Ukraine Vice Prime Minister and the official heading up the rescue effort, reported dpa.

Emergency crews working since the Monday blast near the Donetsk province village Evdokino had by Tuesday morning brought 24 survivors to the surface from the 1,000 metre deep pit.

Five of the survivors were in serious to severe condition from burn or concussion injures or both. All survivors no matter their condition were being treated in Donetsk region hospitals, Turchinov said.

Three persons are known to have died in the explosion, thought to have been caused by methane gas buildup. Counts of how many persons were in the mine, or could still be underground, have ranged from 30 - 40 persons.

The three victims died after the lift they were riding fell to the bottom of the mine as result of the explosion, Turchinov said.

Six other mine workers riding in the lift survived the lift's free fall for hundreds of metres, he added.

Turchinov speaking to reporters said the epicentre of the detonation had not, as he had previously suggested, taken place at a 1,000 metre depth; but rather at approximately 500 metres.

The Karl Marx mine is one of Ukraine's deepest, with a bottom well below the kilometre mark.

Analysis of methane gas sensors seems to show that a rapid and as- yet unexplained buildup of methane gas at the 1,000 metre mark was the most likely cause of the accident, but it was so far unclear why the dangerous buildup occurred, Turchinov said.

The massive explosion not only demolished lifts, tunnel support, and communications equipment, but opened cracks allowing below-ground water to enter the mine, slowing rescue efforts.

The lowest levels of the mine below 1,000 metres are already flooded, and the water level is rising, Channel 5 television reported.

A Ukrainian government oversight agency ordered the mine closed on Friday, citing safety law violations.

Reports on Tuesday conflicted as to whether the mine was still being operated at the time of the Monday explosion, with mine management claiming the workers had been performing maintenance work, and government inspectors accusing Karl Marx mine executives of ordering coal mining to continue illegally.

Officials from the Ukrainian inspection agency Gosgorpromnadzor told Interfax that audio recordings of exchanges between miners and managers prior to the blast, and log books now in the hands of government prosecutors, make clear coal was in fact being mined.

Ukraine's government in recent years has attempted to crack down on dangerous coal mining, an industry that kills between 250 and 350 workers annually.

Mine owners and managers have resisted the crackdown because of high prices for coal paid by the country's steel and energy industries.

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