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Iran coal mine explosion kills 21, leaves dozens trapped more than a mile underground

Coal miners and rescue workers gather at the scene following an explosion in a coal mine in Azadshahr, in northern Iran, leaving dozens of miners trapped on May 3, 2017. The mine in Golestan province collapsed when trapped methane gas exploded as workers tried to jump-start a locomotive engine, according to reports. MOSTAFA HASSANZADEH/AFP/Getty Images

TEHRAN, Iran — A large explosion struck a coal mine in northern Iran on Wednesday, killing up to 21 miners and trapping dozens more than a mile underground, state media reported.

Ambulances, helicopters and other rescue vehicles raced to the scene in Iran’s northern Golestan province as authorities worked to determine the scale of the emergency.

There was confusion about how many miners might be trapped inside.

Hossein Ahmadi, head of the provincial Red Crescent, initially said that about 26 were believed to be trapped. Sadegh Ali Moghadam, the provincial director general of disaster management, provided a similar figure, telling state TV that 24 to 26 workers were thought to be inside following a headcount by mine authorities.

Other officials had earlier provided significantly higher estimates, including one from Pir Hossein Kolivand, who runs Iran’s emergency department. He said as many as 80 miners could be trapped in two sections of the mine.

Press TV, the English-language arm of Iranian state television, said two workers had died. Moghadam said about 25 people were injured in the accident.

Provincial spokesman Ali Yazerloo said the blast happened at 12:45 p.m. local time (0945 GMT) and that the provincial governor was heading to the scene. Several officials blamed the explosion on accumulated gas and said it was affecting rescue efforts.

At least 25 people who had entered the mine to try to save those trapped had to be taken to the hospital after inhaling the gas, said Hamidreza Montazeri, the deputy head of the emergency management department in Golestan.

Iranian news reports said the explosion happened while workers were changing shifts.

“I carried two out of the mine,” an unidentified, soot-covered miner told state television. “It is not possible to go inside again. Oxygen tanks should be brought.”

Another miner said he feared his colleagues trapped inside may have died.

“The gas in the mine exploded and my colleagues remained in the tunnel,” he said.

Semi-official Iranian news agencies posted images online from the scene, showing ambulances and emergency workers gathered at the mouth of the mine. Some showed dazed workers, covered in coal dust, being helped by bystanders or laying on the ground as rescuers rushed past with oxygen bottles.

More than 500 workers are employed at the Zemestanyurt mine, which lies 14 kilometers (9 miles) from Azadshahr, according to IRNA. Golestan sits along Iran’s northern border with Turkmenistan and along the shore of the Caspian Sea.

Oil-producing Iran is also rich in a variety of minerals. Iran annually consumes some 2.5 ton of coal but only extracts about 1 million tons from its mines per year. The rest is imported, often consumed in the country’s steel mills.

This is not the first disaster to strike Iran’s mining industry. In 2013, 11 workers were killed in two separate mining incidents. In 2009, 20 workers were killed in several incidents. Lax safety standards and inadequate emergency services in mining areas often are blamed for the fatalities.

Since Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, the country has begun an effort to renovate some of its coal mines. Delegations have visited Tehran from foreign countries including the Czech Republic, hopeful for contracts.