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Death toll rises to 107 as more bodies are carried from mine

Russians work to pinpoint cause of the explosion

NOVOKUZNETSK, Russia -- Rescuers pulled more bodies from a Siberian coal mine yesterday as investigators tried to pinpoint what sparked a methane gas explosion that killed 107 miners in Russia's deadliest mining disaster in a decade.

Among those killed were 20 top mine staff, including its chief engineer, who had been inside checking a British-made hazard monitoring system, said regional Governor Aman Tuleyev. A British citizen, identified as Ian Robertson, and his interpreter were also killed. Robertson worked for the British-German mining consultancy IMC.

Some 200 workers were in the Ulyanovskaya mine when the blast occurred early Monday nearly 900 feet underground. Three people remained missing; 93 had been rescued.

"There was a bang and smoke. Then the rescuers came," miner Alexei Loboda told First Channel television. "We switched on our safety kits and started going to the surface. Five of us came out. First they helped me to walk. Then it was all normal, and I came back to my senses."

Three days of mourning were called in the coal-rich region known as the Kuzbass where most of the population works in mining or related industries.

President Vladimir Putin sent Tuleyev a telegram asking him to convey his sympathy to relatives of the dead and support for the injured survivors and said he was ordering an investigation.

Putin also ordered an inquiry into a second disaster to strike Russia in less than 24 hours -- a fire that swept a nursing home in the southern city of Kamyshevatskaya and killed 62 people.

Nikolai Kultyn, an inspector with federal industrial regulator Rostekhnadzor, said there were no gas monitors where the pocket of methane gas had accumulated. He said the high number of deaths was probably due to the fact that many people were in a small area at the time of the blast.

"The explosion wasn't so strong as to destroy the mine's equipment," Kultyn said in televised comments. "This was a coincidence of circumstances, so many people gathered so close to the epicenter."

In a statement, Rostekhnadzor said that it was unlikely that faulty equipment had caused the explosion, and that investigators were looking into soil subsidence or human error as possible causes. The agency also said that mine operators had passed recent safety tests and that the mine had all necessary operating licenses. Tuleyev ruled out human error, though he did not explain why.

Emergency Situations Minister Sergei Shoigu also said the mine had modern equipment.

The mine in the city of Novokuznetsk, about 1,850 miles east of Moscow, is operated by Yuzhkuzbassugol, an affiliate of Russian coal and steel company Evraz Group SA, which acquired a 50 percent stake in the company in 2005.

Labor union officials blamed the explosion in part on quota systems that encourage miners to work faster and harvest more coal.