The death toll in Saturday’s mine blast in northern China rose to 87 on Sunday morning, authorities said, as rescue-workers continued their search for survivors trapped underground.

A gas explosion shattered a colliery in Heilongjiang province where 528 miners were at work on Saturday morning. The blast at the State-run coal mine is one of the biggest accidents in recent months in a country which has the world’s most unsafe mining industry.

Official reports on Saturday evening said the explosion killed 42 miners, with 66 left buried in collapsed tunnels. The death toll more than doubled overnight to 87; with 21 miners still trapped 400 metres underground as of Sunday morning. More than 240 rescuers were working to reach those trapped, but dense gas and collapsed tunnels had slowed down their work, officials said.

“The blast did not result in much damage to the laneways, but it crippled the ventilation system and communication facilities,” said Zhang Zhenlong, assistant chief engineer at the mining company, which is a subsidiary of the Heilongjiang Longmei Mining Holding Group, a large State-owned mining enterprise which is China’s seventh-largest mining company in terms of production volume.

“Fresh air from the outside could add more chances for survival of the trapped miners,” he told State-run Xinhua news agency.

China’s mining industry is the world’s most dangerous. There were 3,215 mining-related deaths just last year. Tighter safety laws and increased enforcement have seen accidents fall since 2005, with authorities shutting down thousands of illegal mines, where most accidents occur.

State-run mines usually face greater regulation and are regarded to be safer. But Saturday’s was the second major accident this year in a State-run mine. In February, 77 people died in an explosion at the Tunlan mine in Shanxi province, run by one of the government’s biggest coking coal enterprises.

China’s coal mines still supply at least 70 per cent of its energy needs, and have faced pressure to maintain high production levels to keep up with the country’s rapid growth and increasing energy demands.

“We must put safety first,” Governor of Heilongjiang Li Zhanshu cautioned on Sunday. “Development is important, but the growth of GDP should not be achieved at the price of miners’ blood.”

China’s deadly mines

November 21, 2009: At least 87 killed in gas explosion in State-run Heilongjiang mine

February, 2009: 77 miners killed in explosion in Tunlan, Shanxi, at another mine run by State-run firm

November, 2005: 171 die in Dongfeng mine, also in Heilongjiang

February, 2005: 214 miners die in Fuxin, Liaoning. The incident triggers the central government to introduce stricter safety regulations and close down more than 13,000 illegal mines. Deaths have since decreased

April, 1942: 1,549 miners die at a mine in northern Liaoning, one of the world’s worst mining disasters

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