| The main entrance of the Bhatdih mines. Picture by Gautam Dey
Dhanbad, Sept. 7: All 53 miners trapped since last night inside a mine where coal roofs collapsed after a huge explosion are feared dead as the rescue team bored through to a spot where it found several bodies.
The team came upon at least 30 bodies, which raised the apprehension that the others could also be dead.
Sources said that around 8.30 pm yesterday, when the miners were digging between the 17th and 18th levels, about 470 metres underground, there was a blast followed by a fire caused by coal-bed methane gas and a gush of the poisonous carbon monoxide.
Large pieces of coal dislodged by the explosion blocked the track going inside, making progress of the rescue team difficult. Even 20 hours after the accident, rescuers had not been able to bring up a single body from the Bhatdih mines in West Jharia of Bharat Coking Coal Ltd.
There were unconfirmed reports that the authorities were delaying bringing up the bodies for fear of public outrage.
Thousands had gathered around the mine and were shouting slogans against the management, demanding action against the officers responsible for safety.
One of them, Pintu, said he had been told that his brother Manoj Mishra, trapped inside, was dead. “My brother had not even had his evening tea before entering the mine. He had promised our mother he’d take long leave during Dussehra.”
The rescue operation started two-and-a-half hours after the accident and by that time the trapped miners might already have been dead, said a senior police officer at the site.
Three miners who were near the entrance escaped after feeling the heat and were admitted to the company hospital.
When gaps appear between coal seams during digging, it is filled up with sand — a process called dousing in mining language — as a safety measure. Sources alleged that this was not done and as a result the gaps had filled up with methane gas.
As the miners started digging at that place, the gas pressure had built up so high that it caused an explosion, followed by the fire, creating carbon monoxide, produced when carbon burns partly but not completely.
This means that if anyone had survived the roof collapse, he would have been killed by carbon monoxide. The oxygen masks that miners are supposed to carry can save them only for 30 minutes.
An officer of Coal India Ltd, whose personnel are taking part in the rescue, said the accident could have taken the lives of all the 53 in a few minutes, a fact that he said, on condition of anonymity, was known to the management.
The Bhatdih mines had in any case been declared highly combustible because of the presence of methane gas in large quantities.