Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Heartbreaking, and Too Familiar To Us Here

The developing news from Poland is bad. Rescue efforts for 15 coal miners trapped yesterday in an explosion have been hampered by heat and methane gas, and reports say that hopes are fading. Another 7 miners, who did not make it, already have been recovered. The Irish Times has confirmed an eighth found dead.

The German newspaper, Der Spiegel:

Up to 70 rescuers raced into the tunnel after the blast and, using heavy digging and cutting equipment, spent the night trying to clear nearly 500 meters of rubble to reach the trapped men. The temperature in the shaft is about 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) and rescuers were only able to stay underground for about half an hour before coming back up for air.

Reuters news service:

Officials said there was still a high risk of another explosion and the concentration of gas was rising. Polish television reported rescue work might resume at 1700 GMT.

"It is absolutely impossible to continue rescue work underground right now," Poland's president Lech Kaczynski told a news conference after visiting the site.
"Even though we should never lose hope, I will not hide the fact that the situation is very, very grim."

Officials said the blast appeared to have damaged an underground water pump, flooding the area and leaving little hope that anybody could still be found alive.
Family members waited patiently at the pit head for news of the missing men and were offered counselling by local doctors.

"I was once a miner myself. When I heard the news, my first thought was that my son is dead," Michal Wasowski, 55, whose son is among the missing.

"A methane explosion is one of the most horrible things that can happen underground and this time it happened to my son."

Der Spiegel provides more background:

The mine shaft where the blast occurred had been abandoned in March because the levels of gas made it too dangerous to work there. However, equipment worth €17 million had been left behind. Pawlaszek said the work was done under increased security and under the supervision of specialists in detecting gas.

Poland's labour unions have said that there has been a lack of investment and massive layoffs have resulted in falling safety standards at the nation's mines. More than 80 miners have died in the country since 2003. Opened in 1957 the Halemba pit is one of the country's oldest mines. A previous gas explosion there in 1990 killed 19 miners and injured 20, and in 1991 a cave-in killed another five.

And the Irish Times adds:

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.

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

Over the holiday, please spare a thought for these families, so very like our own. And in the words of the ancient poet Sophocles (from memory, the play Antigone, as freely translated by Dudley Fitts and Duncan Fizgerald):

"..think a word of love
For one whose paths turn under the dark earth
Where there are no more tears."


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