50 killed as fire breaks out at coal mine in Russia

Workers in Russian coal-rich area struck by safety concerns search for several hundred trapped in blaze which broke out just as shift change

More than 50 people have been killed after a fire broke out at a coal mine in southern Russia, leaving three firefighters trapped, authorities have said.

The mine in the Bukhino village in the Vorkuta region, a coal-rich area that is home to Russia’s biggest iron ore mine, Krymsk, was struck by a blaze in the mine in the early hours of Thursday.

The number of people confirmed dead has risen to 50, with more than 200 others rescued, Krasnoyarsk region governor Mikhail Ivanov said in a televised briefing.

Rescue workers looking for three trapped fire fighters had spotted smoke coming from the roof of a shaft at around 2am on Thursday, Ivanov said.

Firefighter officials said at least three firefighters were trapped inside the mine and warned that more than 100 others were in danger, while navy divers were also involved in the search operation.

“Hopefully the situation will not get out of hand and the rescue workers will return safely,” Igor Borodin, a fire service spokesman, said by phone from Vorkuta.

The total coal reserves of the Sukhar-Amury mine are estimated at 63m tonnes, according to its website. The mine has a three-storey shaft, each with access of more than 100 metres. It has been in operation since 1954.

The killing of a worker at the mine last week prompted protests by bereaved families.

An angry crowd occupied the office of the operator of the mine, Manganese Miners Works JSC, for hours on Monday before officers moved in with water cannon to disperse them.

Manganese Miners Works JSC did not respond to questions from the Guardian on whether it had plans to improve safety standards or addressed the concerns of its workers.

Allegations of healthcare and safety violations have been levelled at the company in the past, including serious incidents in which workers were trapped underground. In 2014, state investigators were able to track a group of 40 miners who had been forced to take part in an illegal mine crawl.

“[There are] some conditions we take too seriously here,” Alexei Protas, one of the miners forced to participate in the perilous subterranean walk, said after his release.

The mining industry has faced a spate of accidents this year. On 11 April a methane explosion killed 42 people at a mine owned by Manganese Miners Works.

In January, 29 miners died in a methane blast at a coal mine owned by the country’s biggest iron ore producer, Raspadskaya. In 2014, 81 miners died in methane explosions at Russian mines, according to OAO Gazprommine, the owner of Raspadskaya. The country’s two largest aluminium firms, United Company Rusal and Norilsk Nickel, were also hit by accidents last year.

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