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Ukraine Begins Two Days of Mourning

March 13, 2000

KRASNODON, Ukraine (AP) _ Flags flew at half-mast across Ukraine today as the country began two days of mourning for 81 coal miners killed in an underground explosion.

Funerals were to begin today for the miners killed in Saturday’s blast. Eighty of 277 miners underground at the time of the explosion were killed immediately, while another died at a hospital.

Ukraine’s prime minister, Viktor Yushchenko, appeared on national television late Sunday to call for many of the country’s unsafe and unprofitable mines to be shut down, while other officials demanded more funding for the cash-strapped coal industry to prevent future accidents.

President Leonid Kuchma said the blast, at the Barakova mine in the eastern town of Krasnodon, was a methane explosion, probably the result of a breach in safety rules, according to the Interfax news agency.

But union officials said it could have been a coal dust explosion ignited by welding equipment. Ukrainian Fuel and Energy Ministry specialists were still conducting tests today.

One wounded miner, interviewed in his hospital bed, described the moment of the blast on Russia’s NTV television.

``I heard a burst, then saw cloudy coal dust. There was the smell of fire,″ the survivor said through glazed eyes. His name was not given.

``I called the dispatcher, and she said, ‘There’s been an explosion, you guys are the only ones left, hurry and come back up.’ ″

While Ukraine has the world’s highest coal industry death rate, the Barakova mine had never experienced a major accident. Instead, it was known for the passion of its 3,000 workers, ever-ready to launch a strike to demand back wages and stand up for their rights in one of Ukraine’s most cash-strapped industries.

On Sunday, a few grief-stricken miners wandered around the crumbling grounds of the mine, whose rusty, creaky elevators stand against the dark pyramids of coal rock.

Under the eyes of relatives and other onlookers, rescue workers pulled up the last of the bodies Sunday. Some rescuers, dressed in dirty orange overalls, packed up their gear, the last of the 33 teams who had worked since Saturday to pull the dead up from a shaft 2,190 feet underground.

A neatly stenciled list of the victims’ names hung on a bulletin board at the entrance to the mine’s administration building. Next to the list were two red carnations, a notice about volleyball practice, and a note advertising a country cabin for sale.

``My son, my blood!″ wailed one woman wrapped in a shawl, whose 21-year-old son Andriy Li-Chan-Yuk was on the list.

Three young men stopped next to the list, and one started crying, touching the written names.

``Five friends at once, just like that. Friends, schoolmates,″ he said, turning away.

Later Sunday, many of the victims’ relatives gathered in the yard of the Krasnodon hospital. Their feet sinking into the mud, they watched as medics pulled out stretchers loaded with bodies from three large refrigerated trucks.

Inside the hospital, the floor was covered with bodies. Forensic experts stepped over the corpses _ most naked _ trying to identify them. One miner was laying fully dressed, his hands resting peacefully on his chest.

The accident underlined the messy state of Ukraine’s coal industry.

Equipment is outdated and dangerous, and most of Ukraine’s more than 400,000 coal workers do not receive their wages on time. Much of eastern Ukraine, once proud of its coal riches, has turned into a wasteland of poverty and environmental destruction.

The average monthly wage of Barakova miners is $170, said Ukraine’s energy minister, Serhiy Tulub. Tulub was at the accident site Sunday.

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