DONETSK, Ukraine (AP) - An underground methane and coal dust explosion killed 36 miners, injured 44 and left more than a dozen missing in eastern Ukraine on Sunday, the Emergency Situations Ministry said - the most serious accident this year in the country's hazardous coal mines.
The morning blast came as more than 250 miners were working underground at the Zasiadko mine in the coal-rich Donetsk region, authorities said.
''This is a tragedy. We understand once again that that we must re-equip our coal industry both technically and technologically to bring it to a proper level. It is one of the state's priorities,'' Deputy Prime Minister Volodymyr Semynozhenko was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
Semynozhenko lamented the deteriorated state of Ukraine's coal industry, considered among the world's most unsafe, and pledged to help the families of the dead and wounded.
Most of the miners were brought to the surface, where 22 were hospitalized, at least four of them in grave condition. Twenty-two others were injured only slightly.
Ukraine's Emergency Situations Ministry said at least 14 miners were missing, but noted that its figures were preliminary. More than 50 rescue teams were working in the mine, battling a continuing fire, officials said. One miner who escaped the accident unharmed described seeing ''piles of bodies'' while making his way to the surface.
Only 10 bodies had been brought to the surface by Sunday night and reports from the various rescue teams made compiling an exact casualty toll difficult. The regional Work Safety Department said 27 miners were dead and 18 missing.
Police surrounded the mine compound and barred reporters from entering. Grim-faced workers and relatives sat outside the mine's main administrative building in Donetsk awaiting the news.
It was not immediately clear what caused the blast at the Zasiadko mine, which was also the site of a May 1999 methane explosion that killed 50 miners and injured about 40 others.
President Leonid Kuchma ordered that a government commission be formed to look into the causes of the accident, said his spokesman, Oleksandr Martynenko. Kuchma also planned to visit the mine Monday.
Ukraine, once the pride of the Soviet Union for its huge coal mining industry, has more than 200 working and mostly unprofitable mines that were devastated by the Soviet collapse in 1991.
After the government of independent Ukraine slashed subsidies to the coal industry, the death rate began to rise. Last year, 318 coal workers died on the job, including 81 killed in a single explosion, and at least 120 have died so far this year.
Most accidents are blamed on outdated equipment and widespread disregard for safety rules. This year's second-deadliest accident was a May explosion at the Kirov mine that killed 10 and injured dozens of workers, also blamed on gross violation of safety rules.