DONETSK, Ukraine (AFP) — Mourners began burying their dead on Tuesday after the worst mining accident in Ukraine's post-Soviet history claimed at least 90 lives, as rescuers continued their search deep underground.
In a statement the regional administration of Donetsk, in Ukraine's eastern industrial heartland, confirmed that 90 bodies had been found while another 10 people remained unaccounted for.
The close-knit mining community gathered for the first of many funerals, one at a cemetery near the gates of the Zasyadko coal mine, where Sunday's methane gas explosion occurred.
Mourners in thick winter coats filed slowly into the cemetery bearing coffins draped in red cloths embroidered with the Orthodox cross, to the mournful accompaniment of a brass band.
Ukrainian flags flew at half mast across the country on what was an official day of mourning.
"These people paid for coal with their lives," said local mayor Olexandre Lukyanchenko.
Others were overcome with emotion. "Why? Why did this happen to him?" demanded one woman whose young relative had worked at the mine for less than six months before he was killed.
"I knew them all, some of them from their childhood. All of them have left children behind," said one elderly lady. "This is so immensely sad."
Grief was mingled with anger that Ukrainian mine owners had not managed to curb a string of fatal accidents.
"Safety requirements are violated there permanently," said Mykola Ishchenko, who lost his 28-year-old son in the blast at the Zasyadko mine, one of the largest and most dangerous in the country.
"The system of ventilation in the shaft was not working for two days before the explosion," he told AFP.
Meanwhile rescuers continued to battle fires as they searched for the remaining missing miners.
"The fire in the affected zone is continuing, but rescue workers are making progress," said the head of Ukraine's work safety agency, Sergei Storchak.
Thirty-one employees were hospitalised with injuries, mainly connected to methane inhalation, but hopes of recovering the missing miners were fading.
Sunday's accident took place some 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) underground at the Zasyadko pit, one of Ukraine's three biggest mines.
Experts say wages at most Ukrainian mines depend on the volume of coal produced, which gives miners an incentive to ignore safety procedures that would halt work when methane levels are high.
"The safety requirements and our coal-mining industry are incompatible," said Vassyl Khodurchenko, a miner who left the mine ten minutes before the explosion.
"Whatever our fear, we cannot refuse to go down, even if the methane rate exceeds the limit," he told AFP.
Ukraine's coal mines are considered among the most perilous in the world, with many poorly financed and employing outdated Soviet-era equipment.
Most of the country's mine disasters are caused by build-ups of methane gas, which can occur suddenly.
Previously, the worst mining disaster in post-Soviet Ukraine had been at the Barakov mine in 2000, when 80 people were killed in a similar gas explosion.
The Zasyadko mine employs some 10,000 people and produces up to 10,000 tonnes of coal every day.
In 1999 an explosion there claimed 50 lives, while in 2001 another blast left 55 people dead. A gas leak in September 2006 killed 13 miners.
On Monday Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko called on Ukrainians to offer their support to relatives of the dead and said the accident "poses a challenge not only to Ukraine's coal industry but to all political leaders."
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