Rescuers were racing against time and Siberian cold to reach 21 miners still trapped underground as the death toll from a massive gas explosion in China's deadliest coal mine disaster in two years more than doubled to 87, local officials said on Sunday.
The death toll in the pre-dawn underground blast at the state-run Xinxing Coal Mine has risen to 87 and another 21 are still trapped in the shaft, they said.
The blast occurred around 2:30 am on Saturday at the Xinxing Coal Mine under the state-owned Heilongjiang Longmei Mining Holding Group's subsidiary in Hegang City. A total of 528 miners were working underground, among whom 420 have escaped the accident, said staff with the company.
More than 240 rescuers in 19 group have been sent into the shaft, while more than 300 others were helping with the rescue work, said Zhang Zhenlong, assistant chief engineer of the subsidiary.
"The blast didn't result in much damage to the laneways, but it crippled the ventilation system and communication facilities," Zhang said, adding that the rescue work in the past a few hours was to repair the ventilation system.
"Fresh air from the outside could add more chances for survival of the trapped miners," Xinhua news agency quoted Zhang as saying.
Till yesterday, 42 deaths were confirmed and the number leaped to more than double after 45 more bodies were recovered in overnight rescue operations.
Ventilation and power has been restored in the mine and the director, deputy director and chief engineer were sacked.
Television footages on the state-run CCTV showed smoke billowing out of the mine. The blast was so powerful that it could be felt till 10 kilometres from the site.
Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Dejiang had rushed to the spot to direct the rescue operations, Xinhua reported.
The mine, located close to the border with Russia, is one of the top 500 state-owned enterprises in the provincial capital of Harbin.
"We must put safety first. Development is important, but the growth of GDP shouldn't be achieved at the price of miners' blood," Li Zhanshu, governor of Heilongjiang province, bordering Russia, said.
China, which is heavily dependent on coal for energy needs, has a poor record of mine safety with thousands of people dying every year in mine accidents.
International NGOs have labelled Chinese coal mines as the most dangerous working places in the world, with safety standards often ignored for profits and to meet targets set by the provincial bosses.
According to official figures, over 3,200 miners have died in collieries last year, but international NGOs put the figure as almost double.
A blast at the Tunlan coal mine in northern China's coal -rich Shanxi province in February killed 78 people. In December 2007, a gas explosion at another coal mine in the same province killed 105 people.