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39 Miners Killed in E.Ukraine Blast

May 25, 1999

DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) _ Once again, Ukraine was in mourning Tuesday for victims of a coal mining disaster, a methane gas explosion that sent a fireball through an underground shaft, killing 39 workers and injuring dozens more.

The disaster was far from the worst in recent memory in Ukraine, location of the world’s most dangerous coal mines. And President Leonid Kuchma noted Monday’s blast occurred at a mine noted for its relatively high safety standards _ far better than most in Ukraine.

By Tuesday, rescue teams had retrieved all the dead and injured from the shaft at the Zasiadko mine. They had to work quickly _ the Emergency Situations Ministry said the blast destroyed the mine’s ventilation system and enough methane was trapped below that another explosion could occur at any time.

After emergency crews left, grim-faced workers remained, preparing small steel monuments at the mine’s courtyard to decorate their comrades’ graves.

``For 300 hryvna ($75) people have to die here,″ one worker said, referring to a mine worker’s average monthly salary.

Meanwhile, doctors at special burn centers were treating some of the 48 injured. Some miners, with burns covering more than 50 percent of their bodies, lay motionless, their blackened skin wrapped in bandages.

Volodymyr Gusak, the center’s chief medic, said those hospitalized suffered from shock, burns of the upper respiratory tract and other injuries.

Officials said the blast unleashed a shock wave that was felt 1 1/2 miles away, and temperatures at the site of the explosion, almost a mile underground, reached 2,190 degrees.

``Everything burned. My hands burned when I covered my face with them,″ injured miner Semen Pavlenko said from his hospital bed.

Just over a year ago, a methane blast at another mine in the Donetsk region killed 63 people. The methane blasts, along with frequent reports of miners dying alone or in pairs because of poor equipment or safety violations, have made Ukraine’s coal industry the world’s most dangerous.

The Zasiadko mine had been considered one of the country’s safest and most profitable, said Kuchma, who will go to the blast site Wednesday.

``I must be with the families and the workers of this mine,″ Kuchma said, speaking in the capital, Kiev. ``Every death is painful for the family and the country.″

The Ukrainian leader declared a day of national mourning Wednesday. Flags throughout Donetsk flew at half staff Tuesday, decorated with black ribbons.

Ukraine, once the pride of the Soviet Union for its huge coal mining industry, has 232 working mines. After the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, the government slashed subsidies to the coal industry and the death rate began to rise. The death toll was 283 in 1997, 360 last year, and has reached 146 this year, according to industry figures.

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