Iranian emergency personnel and mine workers gather around the Azad-Shahr coal mine in the city of Golestan, Iran, on Wednesday. At least 20 people died in an explosion at the mine. Photo by Masoud Hasanzadeh/EPA
May 4 (UPI) -- Iranian authorities said Thursday that a leak of methane gas led the explosion that left dozens of miners dead in northern Golestan province.
Iranian media accounts vary, though the consensus as of Thursday morning in Iran was that more than 20 miners were dead after the explosion the previous day.
A profile of the Iranian mining industry from the U.S. Geological Survey said most of the mining operations in Iran are controlled by private companies, although the government controls many of the larger-capacity mining operations, especially metals and coal. Iran's Labor Ministry said the death toll could be up to 35, including 20 or so that were outside the mine's entrance who were rushing to helped those trapped by a collapse, the semiofficial Fars News Agency reported.
Unidentified officials were cited by Iranian broadcaster Press TV as saying the explosion occurred Wednesday morning while workers were changing shifts. Authorities in Tehran have called for a three-day mourning period out of respect for the victims.
"This tragic incident made me bitterly distressed and I hope for God's providence and blessing," Iran's ruling cleric, Ali Khamenei, was quoted by the official Islamic Republic News Agency as saying.
The ayatollah ordered emergency officials to respond to the search and rescue mission under way at the Golestan mine. Up to 80 miners may be trapped still in the collapsed tunnels. According to IRNA, the tunnel has a total length of just over a mile and contact with a tunnel station beyond the collapsed section at three-quarters of a mile has been lost.
As of 2012, the last full year covered on the USGS report, Iran produced about 1.3 million tons of coal, down considerably from previous years. Coal as a power source is dwindling as renewable energy resources and cleaner-burning natural gas take up a larger share of national energy grids.
Provincial mining operations have been closed until further notice.