TEHRAN Ė At least 35 people were killed and dozens injured when a pocket of gas deep inside a coal mine in northern Iran exploded and triggered a collapse, officials reported Thursday.
Rescue operations were ongoing at the Zemestanyurt mining complex in Golestan province which on Wednesday was rocked by a blast that left dozens of workers trapped almost 2 kilometers (1.24 miles) below ground.
President Hassan Rouhani dispatched Iranís labor minister, Ali Rabei, to the site of the tragedy, who confirmed to state news agencies on-site that the death toll had risen to 35.
Rescue teams had so far recovered 21 bodies from the rubble, while 14 miners remained missing, presumed dead, according to the industry and mining representative of Golestan province, Reza Bahrami.
Around 69 people were injured in the accident, the majority requiring medical attention after inhaling toxic gasses while several others were treated for burns.
The explosion likely resulted from a buildup of methane gas some 1,200 meters (3,900 feet) below ground level.
Several miners were thought to have been working at a depth of 1,800 meters at the time of the explosion and were trapped by rubble blocking the galleries, according to the emergency services.
Around 500 miners work at the Zemestanyurt mine, located near Iranís border with Turkmenistan.
Rescue attempts have been hampered by methane pockets still present underground.
Emergency teams have opened up a new tunnel into the complex and were pumping oxygen into the mine in an attempt to make it accessible to rescuers.
Iranís government declared a day of mourning and President Rouhani urged all competent organizations to provide aid where possible.
Several critics of Rouhani, who is seeking re-election in the May 19 presidential vote, were quick to criticize the authorities who they said reacted sluggishly to the accident.