A methane explosion ripped through a coal mine in eastern Ukraine Sunday, killing at least 39 miners and leaving 51 missing in underground shafts, an emergency ministry spokesman said.
"The death toll has climbed to 39 and the fate of 51 others is still unknown," said Ihor Krol, chief spokesman of the Emergency Situations Ministry.
The methane explosion occurred at Zasyadka mine in the Donetsk region at a depth of more than 1,000 meters at 3:11 a.m. local time (0111 GMT). The Donetsk region is about 640 km southeast of the capital Kiev.
A local trade union leader of the coal-rich Donetsk region said the chance of rescuing alive the missing miners is "small."
"The chances are small. They are poor," said Yuri Zayats, head of the Zasyadka coal mine's trade union council.
TV stations broadcasted footage of weeping relatives waiting for news outside the mine headquarters.
Four hours ago, Ukraine's Vice Prime Minister Andry Kliuev told a state television at the scene that 33 bodies have been found while 77 others were still missing.
"Twenty-six miners have been hospitalized by now, one of them was injured seriously, others were diagnosed with gas poisoning," Kliuev added.
The Emergency Situations Ministry said earlier on its web site that 457 miners were working underground when the blast occurred.
According to the Interfax-Ukraine news agency, Ukraine's Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych has rushed to the scene and President Victor Yushchenko will fly to Donetsk on Monday.
After attending a meeting of a governmental commission probing into the accident in Donetsk, Yanukovych said a fire was still raging in part of the mine and hampering rescue efforts.
Sunday's blast was the second mine accident to hit the Donetsk region in two days. On Saturday, a miner was killed by falling rocks in another coal mine in the region.
The Zasyadka mine, one of Ukraine's largest, produces up to 10,000 tons of coal every day. But several deadly accidents have taken place in the coal mine.
A gas leak at the Zasyadka mine in September 2006 killed 13 miners. In 1999 an explosion there claimed 50 lives, while in 2001another blast claimed 55 lives.
Ukraine's most deadly mine accident was in 2000, when 80 miners were killed in an explosion at a colliery in the eastern region of Luhansk.