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Fears rise for 15 trapped Polish coal miners

Written by: Staff
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RUDA SLASKA, Poland, Nov 22 (Reuters) Polish officials said today they feared the worst as rescuers battled to reach 15 miners trapped in a deep coal mine after an explosion that killed at least eight others.

More than 70 rescuers worked through the night and tried to pump air into a tunnel to help them overcome ''hell'' conditions in the mine beneath the town of Ruda Slaska, about 300 km southwest of the capital Warsaw, after yesterday's blast.

A spokesman for the state-run Kompania Weglowa coal group said it could take several hours to ventilate the underground area and that it was impossible to say if the rescuers would reach the 15 in time.

''We fear the worst,'' Zbigniew Madej told Reuters. ''The conditions down there (for rescuers) are extreme. It is hell.'' The men were caught in a massive explosion, probably caused by methane gas, at about 2100 hrs yesterday.

Officials said the chief obstacles to rescue efforts were deposits of methane gas, lack of air and high temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius.

Poland's state-run mining industry, built up before the fall of communism in 1989 but starved of investment for years, has seen hundreds of deaths over the last few decades and its safety record has been among the worst in Europe.

BURNED BODIES Seven badly burned bodies have been hauled from the mine, and an eighth miner has been confirmed dead.

''The rescuers have reached the eighth man but were forced to withdraw due to the threat the methane will explode again,'' said Madej. ''Ventilating the shaft may last up to 8-9 hours. It is difficult to say what barriers we will meet (after that).'' Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski flew to the mine to watch rescue efforts and promised help for the families of the miners.

''This is a catastrophe,'' he told reporters. ''Let us hope our worst fears are not realised and that there will be good news.'' Families of the trapped miners gathered at the mine as officials read out the names of the men.

''Me and my son, we are waiting for my husband,'' said Barbara Luczakiewicz. ''We hope he will get out of there. I am very scared but I haven't lost hope.'' Miner Andrzej Labus, who was in a nearby shaft when the disaster occurred, said: ''There was a huge blast and suddenly everything turned black. We were terribly scared.'' The Halemba mine is one of the oldest in Poland and has been in operation since 1957.

It lies at the heart of the Silesia region's industrial belt that has been the scene of several disasters in the past. In 1990, 19 miners were killed in the same pit by a gas explosion.

The eight deaths in yesterday's blast brings the toll in explosions in Polish mines this year to 28.

REUTERS SSC VV1142

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