ZENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina – Exhausted, dusty but happy to be alive, 29 miners were pulled out one by one Friday from a trouble-plagued coal mine that collapsed a day earlier in central Bosnia. They left behind five men, presumed dead under rubble deep underground and beyond the reach of rescuers.
Emergency workers had dug through more than 100 metres (330 feet) of collapsed mine tunnels 500 metres below the surface to reach the trapped men.
Families of those who were left behind broke down in tears as authorities closed the pit entrance.
“We could not reach that group of people,” said rescue worker Amir Arnaut. “We could only reach the first group.”
Officials said that an investigation will be launched to determine the cause of the accident, but they suggested it was linked to a 3.5 magnitude earthquake which hit the town of Zenica on Thursday afternoon, according to Bosnia’s seismologists. The tremor caused a pressure burst and a gas blast which collapsed the mine, officials said.
It was the third incident at the Zenica pits this year, underscoring the vulnerability of the mines in Bosnia and elsewhere in the Balkans, which are generally poorly secured and where miners work with outdated equipment and little protection.
Once communist Yugoslavia’s pride, mines likes the ones in Zenica have been badly maintained, and have seen almost no investment and modernization as the region was engulfed in an ethnic conflict in 1990s.
The rescued men, blinking as they faced daylight, emerged from the mine to cries of joy from their families.
“He is alive!” cried Admira Durakovic, whose husband Amir was among the miners. She then broke down, sobbing and shaking.
Twenty-six miners were taken to a hospital, six of them badly hurt, but none suffered life-threatening injuries, doctors said.
Alija Celebic, a retired miner, waited for his son Bego, one of the survivors. Celebic said his son was hurt in the same pit only few weeks ago, but recently returned to work.
“All is good as long as he is alive!” he exclaimed.
The families and union leaders accused the management of responding poorly to the latest collapse, particularly in first claiming that only eight workers were trapped. Union leaders said it was seven hours after the blast before authorities brought in rescue machinery.
Sixteen miners — a total of 430 work in the pit — were hurt in two previous gas explosions, the most recent less than four weeks ago. The mine was the site of one of the greatest mining tragedies in Bosnia’s history, when 39 miners died in a gas explosion in 1982.
Mine manager Esad Civic conceded that the Zenica mine — once among the most modern in Europe — is now far from the world standard, following Bosnia’s 1992-95 war that impoverished the country. But he insisted that accidents are unavoidable when mining deep underground.
Nuraga Duranovic, a mining inspector, said the deaths cannot be officially confirmed until the bodies are found. Officials said efforts to recover the bodies will continue on Saturday.
He said 22 other miners managed to get out of the pit Thursday, two of whom were injured.
Muris Tutnjic, one of those who got out Thursday, returned to the site Friday to show his support. He said the underground blast “just blew us away.”
“I was alone. … Thank God I managed to pull myself out,” Tutnjic told The Associated Press. “My colleagues … they were some 200, 300, maybe 400 metres (yards) away from me, they got covered.”
Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade, Serbia.