MOSCOW: Prime Minister Vladimir Putin Tuesday grieved with relatives of 90 miners and rescue workers killed or missing in explosions at Russia's largest coal mine as chances faded of finding more survivors.
At least 43 miners and rescue workers are confirmed to have died in the double blast at the Raspadskaya mine in southwestern Siberia while 47 miners are missing, the local branch of the emergencies ministry said in a statement.
A visibly strained Putin, dressed in black and his voice choked with emotion, told relatives in the Kemerovo region the government would do all it could and visited the injured in hospital, television pictures showed. The first methane gas explosion struck late on Saturday, leaving scores of miners trapped half a kilometre underground.
The second blast struck hours later, cutting off the rescue workers who descended to look for survivors. Emergencies Minister Sergei Shoigu admitted "there is less and less hope in the search for survivors" and so far salvage workers have only recovered corpses, including those of 19 fellow rescuers.
"The situation that you are in is so awful and tragic that no words of condolence are appropriate. And I understand that perfectly," Putin told distraught relatives in the nearby city of Novokuznetsk. "But I want you to know that we are suffering with you. Everything that is the government's duty, including the payout of compensation, will be carried out."
Rescuers were making a desperate final effort to find survivors in a network of tunnels hundreds of kilometres long, with a continued risk of further explosions in the gas-filled shafts. "Everyone understands the chances of finding someone alive are practically zero," Interfax quoted a source close to the rescue effort as saying. "Since Sunday we have just been hoping for a miracle."
The tragedy risks becoming Russia's second deadliest mining tragedy of the post-Soviet era after explosions at a different mine in the same region in March 2007 killed 110 people. The missing men are trapped about 490 metres (1,600 feet) deep in the shafts at the Raspadskaya mine which has more than 400 kilometres (250 miles) of tunnels, a bigger network than the entire Moscow metro.
Eighty-four people were wounded in the blasts, the emergencies ministry said. Rescue work had to be halted throughout Sunday, with officials saying the mine was so dangerous that sending people in would be a virtual death sentence, but then restarted on Monday. Officials have said the blasts could have been triggered by a sudden build-up of methane gas in the shaft.
Putin said it was possible the first blast was caused by human error "including careless use of fire". A criminal investigation has been launched for negligence of security rules but the mine's owners have insisted readings showed accepted methane concentration levels in the shafts at the time of the blast.
Raspadskaya is part-owned by steelmaker Evraz, a company 36 percent-owned by Chelsea Football Club's billionaire chief Roman Abramovich. The governor of the Kemerovo region, Aman Tuleyev, insisted that the mine would be rebuilt. Deadly mine accidents are relatively common in Russia because of ageing infrastructure, violations of ventilation safety requirements and tampering with gas-level monitoring equipment.
Russia has been blighted in the past few years by catastrophes at key facilities, most notably a flood at Russia's largest hydroelectric plant in August that killed 75 people.