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8 people dead in Polish mining accident

Polish rescue workers battled to reach 15 coalminers trapped 1,000 metres underground at a mine in Poland.

india Updated: Nov 22, 2006 16:13 IST

Polish rescue workers battled on Wednesday to reach 15 coalminers trapped 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) underground at a mine in the south of the country after a gas explosion killed at least eight others.

"Seven bodies have already been brought to the surface," Grzegorz Pawlaszek, chairman of the company that owns the Halemba mine in this small town near Katowice, in Poland's Silesian coalbelt, said in the small hours of Wednesday morning.

The bodies "were partly charred and impossible to identify at the moment."

"We have had no signs of life from the other trapped miners," Pawlaszek said.

A gas explosion ripped through shaft 506 of the Halemba mine on Tuesday afternoon, trapping 26 miners more than 1,000 meters underground.

Three of the trapped miners were able to make their way back to the surface on their own steam late on Tuesday evening, as rescuers battled in extreme conditions to reach the others.

"It is impossible to breathe in the area of the explosion, the ventilation has been destroyed, which is very disturbing information," Zbigniew Madej, a spokesman for the mining company.

In the course of the night, as the rescue effort continued, the head of the mining company confirmed that at least eight of the miners trapped in shaft 506 by the explosion had been killed.

Eight small votive candles flickered outside the mine in memory of the miners already confirmed dead in the accident.

Rescue operations were called off shortly before midnight on Tuesday, amid fears that the high concentrations of methane gas that had caused Tuesday's explosion could put the lives of the rescuers in danger.

A ventilation system was set up to reduce the risk of a new explosion, and the rescue operation resumed early Wednesday morning.

Rescuers had managed to dig and scrape around halfway to the shaft where the accident occurred, with around 500 metres still separating them from the trapped miners.

Outside the mine, families and friends of the trapped miners and those already confirmed dead stood in silent shock. They were later given counselling by psychologists and priests.

Despite the tragic accident, work continued in other shafts at the mine.

Krzysztof Przybyla finished his shift below ground at 1:00 am.

"I have three friends trapped down there. And I've been told that one of them was killed," the black-faced miner, his eyes moist with tears, said.

"I just phoned the wife of one of my mates. She's sitting at home, waiting with her seven-year-old son for news of her husband," he added, his voice cracking with emotion.

"She hasn't given up hope. We have to keep on hoping till the very end."

Polish Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski travelled to the scene of the tragedy, the second mining accident in four months to hit Ruda Slaska, and urged the families of the trapped miners not to give up hope.

"We must hold onto hope, but if the worst has happened, the families of the miners will receive the necessary aid," Kaczynski said.

"The death of eight miners is already a great tragedy," he said, adding that national mourning would be decreed in Poland.

Four miners were killed in Ruda Slaska in July when a shaft caved in at another mine in the town.

With the latest tragedy at Halemba, 21 miners have died so far this year in Polish mining accidents. Last year, around 20 were killed.