MOSCOW (AFP) - Rescue teams have so far failed to make contact with 26 miners missing after a pit collapse in northern Russia killed at least four workers, the authorities said on Friday (Feb 26).
"There has been no contact with them," Ms Tatyana Bushkova, a spokesman for Vorkutaugol, which owns the mine, told AFP, referring to the missing miners.
The Emergencies Ministry confirmed that officials had so far been unable to get in touch with the missing workers in the mine located above the Arctic Circle.
"Rescue teams are trying to reach them," a ministry spokesman told AFP. "We are hoping for a favourable outcome, but the clock is ticking."
The Severnaya mine is located in the city of Vorkuta in the Komi region, which used to host one of the major Soviet-era GULAG labour camps.
In a sign of the seriousness of the situation, Russian President Vladimir Putin tasked the government with creating a special commission over the accident, the latest tragedy to hit the country's accident-prone industry.
A total of 110 people were on duty in the Severnaya coal mine at the time of the accident on Thursday at the depth of 748m.
Eighty miners were rescued and brought to the surface. Eight were hurt and five of them remain hospitalised.
"According to preliminary information, the unforseen emergency at the Severnaya mine was caused by a sharp outburst and explosion of methane at the production unit," said a statement from Vorkutaugol, which is operated by Severstal, the Russian steelmaker controlled by billionaire Alexey Mordashov.
Hundreds of rescue workers were trying to trace the missing on Friday, the emergencies ministry said, adding that more workers were expected to arrive at the scene with more equipment.
Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov, who went to the scene on Thursday, said rescuers risked their lives by working in difficult conditions including almost zero visibility, gas-polluted air and rubble.
"This creates serious problems but we are doing our job and moving forward step by step," Mr Puchkov said in remarks released by his ministry on Friday.
Ms Bushkova, a Vorkutaugol spokesman, said earlier on Friday that all the places where the miners could be had been identified, adding that a fire was still burning at the site of the blast.
Mr Vladimir Markin, a spokesman for the Moscow-based Investigative Committee, the country's main investigative agency, said that "the fate of 26 miners is currently unknown".
The Investigative Committee has opened a criminal probe into the violation of safety rules at the mine and dispatched a number of investigators and forensic experts to the scene.
The head of the Federal Service for Labour and Employment, Vsevolod Vukolov, was also sent to the remote region.
Mine collapses are common in Russia and other former Soviet countries, where some infrastructure has not been modernised since the Communist era.
The accident at the mine took place despite the fact that the company has over the past years invested heavily into safety, said Vorkutaugol.