The explosion killed 42 miners while 66 were left trapped 400 metres underground as of Saturday evening, said Zhang Jinguang, a spokesperson with the rescue operations.

A gas explosion in a coal mine in northern China left 42 people dead and dozens trapped half a kilometre underground, in an accident which has again turned the spotlight on the safety of China’s mines.

More than 528 miners were working at a colliery in northern Heilongjiang province when a gas explosion tore through the mine at 2.30 a.m. on Saturday, China’s State-run Xinhua news agency reported.

The explosion killed 42 miners while 66 were left trapped 400 metres underground as of Saturday evening, said Zhang Jinguang, a spokesperson with the rescue operations.

“I passed out for a while, I found I was shrouded by heavy smoke when I regained consciousness,” Wang Xingang (27), an injured miner among the fortunate 415 people who escaped told Xinhua. “I groped my way out in the dark, and called for help.”

The blast occurred at a mine operated by the Heilongjiang Longmei Mining Holding Group, a large State-owned company which produces 12 million tonnes every year. The accident has raised serious questions on the safety standards and enforcement of regulations in the State-run mines, regarded as the most tightly regulated of the country’s mines.

Saturday’s is the second high-profile accident this year in a large State-run mine. In February, 77 people died in an explosion at the Tunlan mine in Shanxi province. The company that ran the mine was a subsidiary of the Shanxi Coking Coal Group, one of the government’s biggest coking coal enterprises.

Safety laws

China’s mining industry is one of the least safe in the world. In 2008 alone, more than 3,000 people died in mines in explosions, floods and other accidents.

But authorities have, since 2005, strengthened safety laws, tightened enforcement and closed down hundreds of mines to improve safety. Last year alone, more than 1,000 illegal mines were closed down. Mining-related deaths have since fallen by 15 per cent, to 3,215 deaths in 2008, according to official statistics.

Luo Lin, head of the State Administration of Work Safety, said this month fatalities had fallen by 24 per cent in the first nine months. He said China had in the past four years closed down 13,000 mines and invested $ 2.2 billion in improving safety.

But most accidents take place at illegal mines, which make up around 80 per cent of the 16,000 mines. The soaring energy needs have seen hundreds of illegal mines pop up .

Coal mines have been at the heart of China’s growth story, and supply 70 per cent of the energy needs. Rapid growth has placed immense pressure on mines to maintain high production levels.

According to one recent government report, China accounts for 80 per cent of worldwide deaths in coal mine accidents, and produces 35 per cent of the world’s coal.

More In: International | News