| Two rescuers enter the old Bansgarha mine at Central Saunda Colliery on Wednesday. Picture by Prashant Mitra
June 15: Subhash Sethi had plans to take his family out for a movie today. But an hour before his duty was to end, he and 13 other coal miners were trapped after the roof of an adjoining mine caved in around 7 am.
Chances of their survival appeared remote with an estimated 2.5 million gallons of water flooding the mine 'abandoned five years ago. The country’s need for more coal prompted the Central Coalfields Limited (CCL) to re-open the mine in Bhurkunda in December last year with disastrous consequences for the 14 devastated families.
One of the survivors, Nanhak Ram, mumbled that many of them were exhausted and decided to come out a little before 7 am. They had entered the mine around midnight.
Ram, who was among the last ones to emerge, heard a loud explosion and felt the earth heave. The miners instinctively knew what had happened and ran for their lives.
A head-count revealed that 32 of them had managed to beat death while the 14 more diligent miners, who decided to stay back and dig for more coal till the end of the shift, had in all probability perished.
Their worst fears were confirmed when the first rescue team returned with a helmet floating on the water. Ramkrishna Mistri, a member of the rescue team, broke down and said the water-level was still rising and there was no way they could proceed further.
The two pumps available at the colliery could not handle the task and more powerful pumps were requisitioned from as far as Bokaro and Hazaribagh, both more than 70 km away.
It would take anything between 20 and 40 hours before water was pumped out of the mine, admitted grim Coal India officials camping at the site in the afternoon.
A similar accident had taken the lives of 11 miners at the same spot way back in 1976.
Seepage of water from the abandoned mine had rendered the surrounding mines unsafe and the old Bansgarha mine was shut down five years ago.
But, miners alleged, not only did officials overrule apprehension and protests while re-opening it six months ago, they also forced miners to go deeper into the mine.
Director General of Mines Safety Bhaskar Bhattacharya claimed in Dhanbad that a 27-metre thick layer of rock separated the two coal seams, one of them abandoned.
Generally, he added, abandoned seams are kept dry through bore-holes from which water is regularly pumped out. But in this case, this simple precaution was apparently not taken and the old seam was possibly not drained completely. As a result, when the roof collapsed, cracks would have developed in the rocks separating the seams, through which water would have rushed in and caught the miners by surprise.
Chief minister Arjun Munda visited the site and enquired about charges of negligence.
Hazaribagh deputy commissioner Rahul Purwar declared that action will be taken if evidence of negligence surfaces during the investigation.
Unconfirmed reports suggested that although the CCL was allowed to excavate coal till pillar-1, the project officer, Umesh Kumar, had ignored safety norms and forced miners to go down 3,000 feet till the 29th pillar.
Rescue workers confirmed that the water-level had come up to the 21st pillar at a depth of around 2,100 feet.
Kumar was advised to stay away from the site in view of the anger directed against him.