A Siberian mining region has begun three days of mourning after more than 50 people died in a coal mine accident and a rescue effort that ended in tragedy.
After initially reporting that six rescuers had died during attempts to reach miners, officials said on Friday that one had been found alive and taken to hospital for treatment.
But news of his survival was a small consolation for a community devastated by the loss of 51 lives, including those of 46 miners, in the worst mining accident in Russia in more than a 10 years.
The miners were killed on Thursday when coal dust caught fire, and smoke quickly filled the Listvyazhnaya mine through the ventilation system, Russia’s TASS news agency said, citing an unnamed emergency official.
The mine, near the town of Belovo in the Kemerovo region, had 285 people inside.
Flags flew at half-mast outside official buildings in Kemerovo and grief-stricken relatives of the victims wept outside the snow-covered mine site as the period of mourning was declared on Friday.
“I can’t carry on,” one woman said, as families gathered in sub-zero temperatures.
A former worker at the mine, Denis Timokhin, told independent TV channel Dozhd safety violations were frequent at the facility, accusing management of forcing miners to work despite high methane concentrations.
“If you don’t want to work, quit,” he said. “No safety protocols, all sensors are plugged with bags.”
The regional inspector for mining was detained and questioned by Russian investigative officers on Friday.
TASS and RIA-Novosti cited emergency officials as saying that there was no chance of finding any more survivors in the mine.
President Vladimir Putin expressed his condolences to the families of the miners killed, calling it a “great tragedy”.
“I have spoken several times with Kemerovo Region Governor [Sergei Tsivilev] and the heads of rescue services,” he said during a meeting with Serbian counterpart Aleksandar Vucic in the Russian Black Sea resort of Sochi.
“They are doing everything in their power but, unfortunately, the situation is not improving, and they are now risking their own lives. The necessary decisions are being taken on the spot. We hope that as many lives as possible will be saved,” he added.
The coal-producing region of Kemerovo, roughly 3,500 km (2,175 miles) east of Moscow, has suffered fatal mining accidents for years.
The Listvyazhnaya mine is part of SDS-Holding, owned by the privately held Siberian Business Union. There was no immediate comment from the owner.
According to news outlet Interfax, citing officials from Rostekhnadzor, Russia’s state technology and ecology watchdog, the latest inspection of the Listvyazhnaya mine took place on November 19. The report did not offer any details on the results of the inspection.
In 2016, 36 miners were killed in a series of methane explosions in the Severnaya coal mine in Russia’s far north. In the wake of the incident, authorities analysed the safety of the country’s 58 coal mines and declared 20 of them potentially unsafe.
In another incident in 2010, 91 people were killed and 100 were injured at the Raspadskaya mine in Siberia.
The accident was the result of a methane explosion when more than 300 miners were inside. A second explosion then trapped a group of rescuers.
In 2007, 110 people died after a gas explosion at the Ulyanovskaya mine, in the same region.